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Resources,  July 10, 2007

Lighting the Way: Photography for Visually Impaired Students

"What would children who are blind show us about the world if they learned to take pictures? The question first occurred to photographer Tony Deifell in 1991, soon after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied anthropology. A year later, he sought an answer by setting up an experimental photography program, called Sound Shadows, at Governor Morehead School for the Blind, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The state-funded Governor Morehead is North Carolina's only school for the visually impaired; established in 1845, it is one of the oldest in the United States. Sound Shadows was based there for five years, from 1992 to 1997, during which Deifell cotaught thirty-six students ages 12-19 with visual impairments. The kids not only learned how to point and shoot, they also were taught how to use a camera to re-create dreams and express personal vision.

In April 2007, Chronicle Books published Seeing Beyond Sight, Deifell's richly illustrated record of his experience at the school. The book features about 150 images from the Sound Shadows program, accompanied by the words of their creators as well as updates on many of the student photographers.

In the book's introduction, Deifell concedes that in 1992, taking Sound Shadows from concept to curriculum was no easy task. He had the examples of many visually impaired artists to inspire him, but it was still unheard of to actually teach photography, the least tactile of the arts, to blind students. The proposal was so unusual that when Deifell approached the school, the outreach director thought it was a joke.

But not long after Sound Shadows got under way, Sheila Breitweiser, the school's superintendent at the time, received a package from a student in the program that demonstrated the project's benefits. With her first roll of film, Leuwynda Forbes, then eighteen, had aimed her mechanical eye at cracks in the school's sidewalks. Deifell was dismayed at first, thinking that precious film had been wasted on accidental exposures. Then he saw the note Forbes had attached to one of the photographs, a message for Breitweiser that read, 'Since you are sighted, you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem, since my white cane gets stuck in them.' The cracks were promptly fixed.

'What surprised me was the confidence and assertiveness of one of our kids, and the wherewithal to provide evidence,' the superintendent recalls. Also important to Breitweiser was that Forbes's work, like all of the students' photos, was an opportunity for discussion, essential in Sound Shadows to help the students 'see' their photographs after they had taken them.

With autofocus cameras, the students used sound as an informant, and touch as a way to compose their images. But to envision the photographs -- to assess them and learn from them -- required the teachers and students to discuss the prints. The teachers would faithfully report what they saw in each picture, and the students merged those descriptions with what they had perceived or imagined while in the field...

Critiquing of photographs was of course collaborative, but finding a shot and setting it up was often an independent project. "A lot of the students had been insulated -- in classrooms, in dorms," explains Dan Partridge, a Governor Morehead teacher during Sound Shadows and now a research associate for Duke University's Jazz Loft Project. "They weren't really called on to interact with the outside world or the visual world, and that's such an important part of communication. Photography was a vehicle for the students. We weren't looking for the best photographs; we were allowing them to do everything on their own. The goal was to feel like they could communicate with anybody on any level.'...

With autofocus cameras, the students used sounds as an informant, and touch as a way to compose their images."

This article was also published in Edutopia Magazine, July 2007

Posted by wrivenburgh on July 10, 2007 | Resources