The Braille Monitor                                                                                       May 2003

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Focusing on the Picture
by Susan Povinelli

Sue Povinelli
Sue Povinelli

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the twenty-second Kernel Book, Not Much of a Muchness. In the Spring 2003 issue of the NFB Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia, a follow-up to the article appeared. It demonstrates the value our Kernel Books have and, more important, the effect that Federationists have on our neighbors as we set about living our lives as contributing members of the community. So here together are the Susan Povinelli article and the letter to her from a friend. The piece begins with President Maurer's introduction.

Susan Povinelli lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. She puts her Federation philosophy to work every day and is not afraid to tackle unlikely tasks. In "Focusing on the Picture" she tells the engaging story of her experiences as a photography teacher. Here is what she has to say:

As blind individuals we don't pay much attention to the role photographs have in our lives. Most of us who can't see the pictures can't really appreciate them. Our images of loved ones and special places are formed by our other senses. A smell of angel food cake baking may bring up a vision of our grandmother baking in her kitchen. A seagull crying takes us back to pleasant walks along the beach, and the cool wet sensation of cold fluffy snowflakes lightly falling on your face reminds you of the thrill of sledding down a long steep hill during a snowstorm. Because the sighted world treasures memories through visual images, it is extremely important for us to share and document our experiences through photographs.

So, when my children's 4-H Club needed a leader for its photography project, I volunteered. I can still remember telling my sister that I was going to teach photography this year. She started laughing. The image of a blind person evaluating and describing the merits of a beautiful photograph seemed comical to her. She said, "You'll be so helpful in selecting a good picture."

I knew she was giving me a hard time, but I also knew she had a point. How could a blind person determine if a photograph had good composition or what would be an interesting subject to photograph? Would the parents of these children have enough confidence to send their kids to my class, or would the old stereotype of blindness keep them away? These were the challenges I had to overcome to make the class a success.

But I am creative and have integrated two great philosophies, which have governed my life. The first is the National Federation of the Blind's positive philosophy about blindness. This philosophy says that blind people can lead successful and productive lives by obtaining a positive attitude about blindness and learning proper alternative techniques.

The second is the 4-H philosophy to "Make the Best Better." This philosophy encourages youth to improve their lives through learning life skills (such as leadership, public speaking, and home economics) by hands-on experience. I diligently proceeded. I reminded myself that my main function was to be an advisor to the children. They were responsible to accomplish 80 percent of the work themselves.

All I had to do was prepare the lesson plans, collect all the materials needed (tripods, paper goods, and items to be photographed), and present the exercise. The children would do the rest. So I designed my class with this in mind.

I use a computer system sometimes called a reading machine. Using a scanner I can convert print pages into electronic text and store the text in my computer. Once the text is in the computer, I can use special programs that convert what a sighted person sees on the screen to spoken words. Using this system, I can create either print or Braille documents. Using these tools made developing the project fairly simple and straightforward. The extension office had already developed the curriculum. I scanned and read several lesson booklets. Then I selected the material I wanted to use and prepared print handouts for the children and Braille copies for me to use for giving instructions during the class.

When the room needed to be set up to determine flash range, I handed the children the masking tape and my talking tape measure, and they marked the distance on the floor. I could easily have done it myself, but the children needed to learn to measure and get the feel of distance. I then showed a few children how to set up tripods. Then from there on they were responsible for setting up their own tripods. We were ready for the exercise.

As in most project meetings, plenty of parents were willing to help. So when kids had trouble loading film in their cameras, another parent would help.

When it came time to describe good composition to the children, I stood up in front of the group and explained the four principles of good composition: include interesting details, place the subject off-center in the photograph, have only a few subjects in the photo and reduce background clutter, and choose interesting subjects.

Before we started photographing, I had the children brainstorm on interesting subjects they might like to photograph. I handed all the children three Post-it notes and asked them to write one subject on each Post-it note. Then the child would get up and place it on a large piece of paper mounted on the wall. I asked for a volunteer to read the list. The children took turns reading the assignment or the handouts. Thus, while drawing each child into the process, I was able to obtain the needed information to conduct the class.

One of the major objectives of this course was for the children to learn how to evaluate photographs for good composition. The children evaluated each others' photographs, and then they would identify one aspect that needed to be improved. As a group we would provide suggestions on how to take a better picture. If they wanted my opinion regarding their photograph, they would describe the photo and its problem. Then I could recommend some technique to try.

Then the owner of the photo would try taking the picture again using some of the suggestions and determine if the picture was improved, thus gaining technical knowledge by comparing the two pictures and determining which technique provided the desired effect.

I have to admit an onlooker might have thought I had lost total control of the class and things were in utter chaos. Here is the scene: children spread around the parking lot shooting pictures everywhere. One group is taking pictures of the building while others are photographing trees. It is noisy since each group is photographing its subject. At another time when they are learning to take group photos, kids are yelling suggestions at the photographer on how people should be posed in a group photo. Meanwhile, I am standing talking to another parent. A child comes up and asks for clarification on the exercise. I check my Braille notes and tell her. It is purposeful, organized chaos and great fun.

I can say it has been a lovely learning experience for us all. I have gained a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of taking great pictures. The children and their parents have learned that blind people are capable of accomplishing a task that is considered too visual for a blind person to do. These kids can now look through their viewfinders at blind people and focus their attention on our successful and ordinary lives and not the negative aspects of blindness.

There you have the original article. Now here is the note that Sue Povinelli's friend wrote to her after reading it in a Kernel Book:

Dear Sue,

I read your article as soon as I got into bed last night. I enjoyed it so much that I continued to read each of the other articles in the book.

It was especially fun reading yours, since I know you and the photography project you wrote about. You also have such a nice, easy style of writing--it's like listening to you tell the story. I hadn't realized that you were using all of those tricks when leading the project. I am definitely paying even more attention during future workshops, to try to catch any of those tricks myself.

I've often peeked over to look at something you were doing during one of the times we've been together. Seeing some of the special tools that help you accomplish everyday things has been very interesting. Secretly I've wondered how difficult it was to learn to read using Braille (I've passed my fingertips very slowly across the raised dots and can't feel any difference between the letters), or to use a walking stick [long white cane]. Or how you can tell from my elbow when I am turning or walking up or down a stair. A lump has come into my throat when I look at your beautiful daughters, and I wonder how well you can see their faces. I am saddened when I think about the additional difficulties you live with each day, and I wish that you didn't have to.

On the other hand, most of the times we are together I totally forget that you don't see as well as I do. I get busy chatting or doing something and then suddenly remember that I might have either walked you right into an obstacle or left you behind. It seems that your sight is just a tiny part of you, and most of the time I am busy with all your other parts instead.

You do have a take-charge, can-do attitude. You have accomplished not only marriage, keeping a home, and children, which many of us manage (albeit poorly at times!), but also to go on to college, get a degree in a difficult field, and have a career, which many of us do not manage to do. I have admired you for that. You work full-time, including a commute that relies on a bus, and have this home and family, yet are always the first to volunteer to lead a project (and, after knowing you for a while, not just at 4-H but also at church and school), or even bring a snack (which immediately becomes everyone's must-have recipe). Many stay-at-home moms, with a car, do not do this. Obviously it's your attitude that is the difference. You set a goal and figure out how to accomplish it. You believe you can do it, and you do.

Reading the stories in the book, I learned some things about people using alternative techniques to accomplish tasks and goals and to record memories of people and events. I hope it will help me to become more sensitive to some things that might make achieving goals and dreams easier for some, if not all. What one of the authors said--we have the same wants and wishes--is true. And I think we can all use people around us who encourage and support us.

Thanks for giving me a copy of the book. It's the only book I have that was written by someone I know (autographed, too!).

Have a good weekend,

Ann

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