For years I have been thinking about what big social issue I would tackle for the photo story that gains me the credit in the industry. People have covered homelessness, drugs, kids, the economy, etc. Documentaries and photo stories have been done well and often on these topics. There seems to be a pressure for a photojournalist in college to have a documentary under their arm by the time they leave school. I have heard of stories about people spending all their financial aid money to fly to Africa and cover an arms trade in the Congo or something even more extreme. It was time for me to do one and I was given the perfect opportunity to do it. When my professor suggested that I do a visual project for my senior thesis I was relived to know that I wouldn’t have to write a fifty-page research paper but this was the start to something far larger than I knew what I was getting into.
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Picking the topic was next. This had to be done right because I wanted it to be something I cared about enough to want to see the project through and have it done correctly. I spent two weeks with just topics running through my mind. I had been brainstorming for the past two years but now it was time to pick. For the life of me I couldn’t think of anything that stuck out and proved itself to needing this kind of attention brought to it, In class one day, I noticed that there was a deaf man at the front of the room with someone signing what the professor was lecturing about that day. Was this the story, to gain insight into the world of people with hearing loss? I played out how I could show this and illustrate what this person goes through that is done differently because of hearing loss. I kept it on the mind to mull it over for a day or two. It was on my bike commute home after that class when I saw someone walking down the sidewalk with a blind cane but what through me off was that they also had a blindfold on. This didn’t make any scene to me. If they are blind they don’t need to cover their eyes, and if they did still have some vision, why not use it to their advantage. Once I got home, bewildered, I did a bit of research into what it was they where doing. It turns out it was a student at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ICBVI), learning mobility without sight. This is when I decided that this was going to be the topic I would follow.
Being a visual person has trained me to be on my toes in any situation because the next great image might happen when you least expect it. For most of us, we use our vision for absolutely everything. We open our eyes every morning and expect there to be an image and a clear one at that. For myself, I make my living using my eyes in a way to show other people something they didn’t see for themselves. Sometimes people did see it for themselves but they want to revisit and remember that particular moment. I can only speak for myself but my sight seems to be the most powerful tool I have for everyday life and to make a career for myself. Without my vision I would be as good as a coffee shop with no coffee, a car lot with no cars or an airport with no planes.
I called the commission and pitched my idea to them the next day. This was one of the scariest parts for me. It was something that I wanted to cover so bad that I couldn’t mess up my pitch. I didn’t want to have them think that I was doing this because I thought blind people where outcasts and I wanted to exploit them. I ran through what I would say in my mind over and over to have it come out polished and well received. Once I was on the phone with them it all went out the window and I was just myself. While I may not be the smoothest, or entirely the best with my words I think I have a way of conveying what I want to accomplish. It turns out the man I talked to, Greg Metsker, who is the Assessment Training Center Manager, was all for me coming in and tagging along with the students during the program. From that first phone call we set up a time to meet up and talk a bit more in depth.
The program they have set up is a series of 4 terms that are 11 weeks long with breaks in between each term. When I contacted Greg, they were on break but it was only a week before the students came back or arrived for the first time. I was able to go in and meet with Greg and explained what it was that I wanted to be doing at the commission. He was very forward about some of the media coverage that the blind have had in the past. The example that stuck with me was when this particular video opened, it showed a nice scene and all of a sudden it went black with the phrase “what would you do if this happened to you” spoken over the top of it. Greg mentioned that there have been lots of doom and gloom stories done by different media outlets and it just fueled the misconception the public already had about the blind or visually impaired. That sparked the general focus or thesis of my project. I wanted to set out and show an accurate depiction of a visually impaired lifestyle looked like. In the 23 years I have been around I can’t remember any interactions that I have had with visually impaired people. One of the instructors mentions that between 1-3% percent of the United States population was blind. This would mean there are around 3 million out of 300 million. This would be why I have not spent much time around a blind person. Because it is not all that common to interact with blind people, we tend to fear the unknown. It is sad but true.
On that first visit to the commission I was introduced to most of the staff and also got a tour of the facility. There are specific teachers for each class and it is scheduled just like high school. Classes are 8 to 4, Monday through Friday, with a short break between them and a lunch hour break. One floor of the building is dedicated to dorms that the students are encouraged to stay in during each term. Many students are not from Boise so this gives them a place to stay, and if they are from Boise it is designed to keep everyone together. This is a group of people who all share the same struggles and can be there to support each other when it is needed. The students range in age from 18-75 and are at all different levels of vision loss. Students must be at least legally blind which is 20/200 vision for them to be in the program or have a condition that makes it almost impossible to see. Most “blind” people still have some vision but it is to a point that they can no longer function efficiently with relying only upon vision and that is where the commission comes to the rescue. While in each class the students must wear sleep shades. These are the blindfolds that got me into this story to begin with. If they learn to do the tasks shaded then they will rely less on their vision that they may or may not have left. It is also a confidence booster with showing the students that they can do it without seeing anything. Over the 11-week program students visit each class everyday.
I was surprised to see how well all of the students accepted the fact that I was going to be a tag along for this term. Everyone was given the option to not be part of the documentary if they chose so. There was only one student that expressed a concern about them being out all over the Internet and asked if they could stay out of the story. Everyone else was very willing to participate in having this story told.
At first I did not know what direction I was going to go with this. Should I follow just one student through the program? Should I follow them all? Just talk to the teachers and photograph the students? I eventually just figured out that if I just show up I would see the story taking place right in front of me. I think that is where documentaries head south. The story gets pushed upon the subject you are covering. If I went in and had it all mapped out then I would have missed all the parts that are spontaneous. It was much more relaxing for me and for the students knowing that no one needed to do anything special for me. Being removed enough from the work that the commission was doing was also very important to me. To think that my greed with capturing this story would take away from something that student(s) should have learned would keep me up at night.
The idea the camera has nothing to do with a good photograph proved itself true over and over with this project. Access and trust are the keys to successful photojournalism. If at any time I lost either one of those with these students or the teachers the photos would go downhill immediately. Although most people wouldn’t care, I use each lens for a reason. I shoot with a very wide-angle lens, which forces me to be within around 5 feet of the subject in order to get good images. This also forces me to be close to my subjects and interacting with them. If I am shooting from across the room all the time I miss the human interaction and minute details that go on right up close. As time went on at the commission, my camera seemed to disappear for the students, teachers, and myself. I was there hanging out with people that I had built bonds with. There is a fine line that a journalist has to walk with how close he gets to his subjects and I was able to see that here. During some one-on-one conversation there would be information that was shared that was only for a friendship and not for a documentary. So how do you decide what is too much? Piecing this thing together had put my ethics to the test. I am doing the best that I know how. The deciding factor is when it is all done, is the subject okay with it? That has been the template I have been working off for this project.
While covering this project I have learned lots from people learning lots. Without getting sappy, it was one of those experiences that you are exposed to, that in particular moments you know that you are doing exactly what you should be doing. It is the reason I am a photojournalist. I love to tell these stories. I think it is a common feeling amongst journalist(s). Walking away form this project I feel like I gave it everything I could and am pleased with the entire experience. I could have gone into more detail about what happens in the program but I am hoping that the video shows all of that. If there are any questions, ask. My hope is that you have learned something about photojournalism and more importantly about the blind.
For more information about the commission please visit: http://www.icbvi.state.id.us/