A Photographer's Insights on Vision Loss

Ian Murray.

A Photographer's Insights on Vision Loss

"We’ll find out..."

It was a phrase said to me repeatedly by two of my greatest mentors, Fred Sanders and Jim Platt. Almost fifty years later, that phrase seems to pop out of my own mouth with increasing regularity.

I was a rebel, a loner, very independent, and full of myself as a teenager. Silly enough to cause lots of trouble, but just clever enough to avoid getting caught. Those who know me will probably say that in many respects I still exhibit those traits.

Fred and Jim where photographers in competing businesses close to my hometown, but despite being competitive they were not afraid to collaborate when it came to giving me a decade’s worth of mentoring and instruction in my passion: photography. They were tough and intimidating at times, and gave me some gnarly challenges to help develop and hone my skills. Tasks where commonly thrown in my direction which seemed impossible and would require Herculean effort. Tasks such as, “Go away and come back with ten photographs that scream the color red at the viewer.”

“Not too difficult,” I would think.

Then, just as I was about to go and get cracking, they would add, “But shoot only in black and white.”

“How can that work? It’s impossible!" And all they ever said to questions like that was, "We don’t know, but you go and give it a try and we’ll find out!”

“We’ll find out!”

That phrase irritated me a lot. They were supposed to be teaching me, giving me the answers, not giving me impossible tasks. But I was arrogant and had something to prove, so I went off and struggled with it for weeks. I wasn’t going to be defeated. I would show them. Three months later, I had ten photographs. Looking back, they were pretty abysmal, but although they didn’t scream "red," they could, at a stretch, be said to hint at a faint whimper of pink.

Of course, Fred and Jim barely looked at them before giving me the next challenging task, and that was how it went for almost fourteen years.

An impossible task, me asking how can that be done, and Fred and Jim saying, “Give it a go and we’ll find out.”

"We’ll find out..."

Fifty years later, after working full time as a photographer, a photography teacher, and mentor, I suddenly lost my vision. I was devastated. What could I do? How could I earn a living? What about my students and my mentees? The questions were unanswerable.

I withdrew for almost a whole year. I stopped teaching. I closed down my suite of studios, ended my business, and spent my time listening to music and audio books, and generally getting under the feet of my dear wife. I did, however, get the free long cane from the NFB and gave myself fits of anxiety by venturing out with it on my own, and thereby traumatizing many motorists whose hoods came frighteningly close to being festooned with my lifeless body. (The squeal of those brakes is indelibly fixed in my mind.)

This was weeks before I met my first mobility instructor, who taught me erroneously to rely first and foremost on what minuscule bit of vision I still retained.

Armed with my new mobility skills, I became much more confident. So much more confident using my limited vision, that I confidently rushed to get on the train I could clearly see was about to leave the platform. I didn’t hear the shouts of "STOP" echoing down the platform until I teetered on the edge and was about to fall onto the empty tracks. The train was still there, but what I had seen had fooled me. The train was on the opposite platform and there was nothing but completely empty track between me and the train.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. What little vision I have is deceitful. It lies and puts me in potential danger.

Where is all this going, you may ask, and what does it have to do with photography? Well, as a photographer, I always tried to emphasize that we see with our brains, not with our eyes. That the camera has a completely different way of seeing. The camera produces flat two-dimensional images with no actual depth. Every item in a photograph is equidistant from the person viewing it. The mountain in the distance is not actually in the distance. It’s just as close as everything else in the picture. Depth in flat two-dimensional images is illusory — it’s a construct created by the brain.

My experience with the train and the illusion of closeness confirmed to me that actual vision can also be misleading. It took a while for my brain to slowly marinate in this revelatory moment, but I began to think that if vision was illusory to the extent of putting me in danger, perhaps it was not as essential as I previously thought. So, I played around with this idea for a while. Walking around Boston with my eyes closed, to see what would happen. It was clearly a case of “go try it and we’ll find out.”

I call it a “Fred and Jim moment.”

Since that time, I have tried many “Fred and Jim” moments. The car brakes still occasionally squeal, but not as often. I rely more on my cane to tell me when I need to stop, and I trust my limited vision much less than I used to.

I have traveled alone to many places, including flying to the UK. When anyone asks me, “Are you sure you will be ok, doing that on your own?” I just smile and say, “We’ll find out!”

Since discovering the local Cambridge, Massachusetts chapter of the NFB and being inspired by the many blind members who really “live the life they want,” I have begun to teach photography workshops once again. Will it work? I don’t know. But I do know “we will find out.”