Monday, April 11, 2011

Cory Blind Photography Experience

This phenomenal experience was not what I had anticipated. First of all, my apparatus (see photos) did not work the way I thought it would. While it did obscure my vision, it was much more effective than I intended it to be. There was really no sense of form unless the contrast was extreme - a door to the outside or a window frame had some definition, but mostly it was just the difference between light and dark, sun and shade.

As planned, I spent about three hours wearing the goggles in my house before starting the photo assignment. I took this time to orient myself using my other senses and tried to do mundane things I do everyday (minus the computer/videogame/tv/smartphone/clockwatching). I started by just walking around the house and observing to what extent my internal spatial map relied on sight. I was quite surprised that I was relatively good at navigating just based on my spatial memory, but transient objects and clutter that were not part of the "platonic" or ideal environment tripped me up. While I didn't actually trip and fall, I decided to employ a wooden cane to ensure I made it through the exercise. I made tea, an activity that resulted in honey all over my fingers from dipping to check that the mug was indeed where it was and that I was not just going to pour boiling water all over the counter. I got dressed, tied my shoes, and too late, realized I should have gathered my belongings before donning the goggles. At this point I realized how greatly I rely on sight to remember my surroundings and property. My keys, jacket, wallet, etc don't ring when I get near, don't smell bad if I pass them by, don't emit heat letting me know if I am hot or cold. But in the end I found them.

I slowly made my way from my front door down the few steps leading to our sidewalk. Cranmer park is only three blocks away from my house and I felt I had a pretty good sense of how to get there: just turn right from my yard, right at 3rd, straight on past ash, cross bellaire, and there I am. All I needed to do was follow the sidewalk so I didn't walk into the street. I couldn't have taken more than twenty steps (which was probably 10 feet) before a woman called out, VERY LOUDLY, "Sir, are you OK? Do you need any help?" I was suddenly aware that the cotton I had used to block out any remaining light leaks must have made me look like a freshly released ocular surgery patient and that I did indeed look like someone who might need help. I declined and heard them walk by as I shuffled my feet forward.

I could hear Colorado Blvd. to my left so I knew I was heading the right way. I expected the curb to drop off soon, signaling the end of the sidewalk, beginning of the road. But instead of asphalt, the sidewalk gave way to grass and I remembered that my neighborhood does not have sidewalk everywhere. Many houses just have grass. Thus my optimism about finding the road so easily started slipping and I became painfully aware of how unprepared and vulnerable I was. I had been hoping to document the walk to the park, but now it took all of my concentration to make sure I wasn't wandering into the street or directly into someones yard/house. As I relaxed, I also remembered that there are alleys bisecting each street and noted mentally that that meant double the roads between me and the park. I counted to make sure I knew where I was, but also knew that with no buildings in the park the sound would shift when I got there.

When I got to the park I walked in a little ways. It was quiet, with maybe a few people far off at the other edges, their low voices drifting in on the wind. I took some pictures and moved around a bit, then decided to lay down. I heard an airplane above and went to "click" but remembered that the great distance causes sound and image to appear dislocated, so I adjusted the frame to where I thought my eyes would find it. "Click". After some time I heard the roar of an engine and started shooting the unknown vehicle. Soon after the park became populated by the sounds of laughter and aggressive play. I cued off of sounds for a while, trying to zoom in and grab the actions that emanated them. Some amount of time passed (one of the most disorienting things was not the loss of sight, but the elasticity of time without it) and I decided to try to find the shade. I knew that the trees were towards Colorado from my current spot and I could tell where Colorado was by the sound of traffic, so I slowly made my way over until I could see the shade. After taking a couple more photos, I decided that I should have my eyes on the way back. I took off the goggles and was shocked to find I was right where I thought I was (at least within 10 yards).

The things that really stood out for me during this exercise were:

1) A sense of incredible relaxation. Somehow just not having my eyes available (open but data free) left me feeling deeply tranquil and serene. I wanted more of it. This was not the case when I felt unsafe during the first part of the walk, but the rest of the time it felt like a deep meditation.

2) Spatial orientation. I really expected to have no sense of direction or of spatial orientation but was surprised to find that I almost always had a sense of where I was. The thing that really hit me however, was that I was only aware of other things if they were either directly within tattle reach or were in a state of motion. The things that normally define my sense of space -- the static and unmoving architectural things -- were of no use (except for in some cases the aural dimension, such as the openness of the park versus the corridors of buildings). Also, spatial memory; finding objects that were lost or whose location I could not remember was not as easy as looking around or "visualizing the last place I 'saw' it".

3) Accessibility. My technology is, in it's current state, useless to me without my eyes. My touch phone would seem, by its description, to be a less ocularcentric device than its predecessors, but at least they had identifiable buttons. I realized that without my eyes, I couldn't call for help via my phone unless someone else helped me enable the accessibility options.

There were a lot of other things, such as the almost physical shrouds of smells and the visceral nature of sounds, but I think I will have to investigate them more deeply before I have anything useful to say about them.

Overall this was an incredibly educational, exciting, and empathy seeding experience.

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