Seeing Infrared: The World Through the Lens of a Blind Travel Photographer
We all view the world differently. As a travel photographer and writer tackles progressive sight loss, she turns to analogue cameras to capture images that find meaning beyond what is visible. Through her infrared film and introspective words, we glimpse her perfectly imperfect perspective.
13 July, 2020
When I returned home from my gap year spent in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, my phone only seemed to work in slow motion, its storage space stuffed with thousands of photographs. As I flipped through them, the battered Samsung responding sluggishly as though it shared my jet lag, I was pulled back in time by scenes so unlike anything I had grown up with in London: grizzled mountains with summits lost in translucent cloud, turquoise seas and crescent moon-shaped beaches of black, volcanic sand. These faraway landscapes were sealed in my phone as two-dimensional time machines, crystal clear and luminous with high-definition colour.
I was more grateful than most that everything I'd seen was safely backed up, because as well as photographs, I brought home the diagnosis of a rare, degenerative eye disease. It had apparently been lying dormant and unnoticed in my eyes since birth, but had revealed itself right at the end of the best year of my life. I was glad it was at the end, but even so, spending my last few weeks in Seoul dipping in and out of hospitals as I received the terrifying news of future blindness was not exactly how I'd planned to end my time abroad.
There's a common misconception that the blind see only blackness. This is very rarely true. In fact, people without eyes at all have been known to see a kind of white fog. Since there is little awareness of what blindness actually is, I find that people either treat me like I can see nothing at all or, when I demonstrate any awareness of my surroundings, as if I can see everything. Yet blindness is a spectrum, and what you see doesn't necessarily stay the same; many people, like me, have degenerative conditions. According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, 71 per cent of blind or partially sighted people in the UK have had their sight deteriorate in the last 12 months.
My eyesight has degraded a lot since that first diagnosis aged 19, but as it stands now, when I try to focus on anything - people's faces, the written word - I can only see a kind of shimmer, a vibrating shadow that hovers between me and whatever is in my field of vision. I can see this shimmer even when I close my eyes.
Still, the visible world is not altogether lost. I can still perceive colours, shapes and whatever is in my periphery. I still go to art galleries and museums, and can enjoy such experiences. Blindness changes how I engage with beauty, rather than diminishing my ability to do so. All people see the world differently; partial vision is just one more lens of subjectivity with which I move through life.
I continue to travel to beautiful places. Since going blind, I have spent a year studying at a university in Kyoto, Japan. It was a year in which I climbed to mountaintop castle ruins that appeared to float in a sea of autumn mist, saw a whole city lost in a swirling snowstorm, chased the cherry blossom front across the country by bullet train and witnessed bright-purple midsummer sunsets that were over in a flash.
Yet I have stopped filling my phone's storage capacity with crisp, vibrant images, quickly snapped and beamed to the Cloud. My desire to immortalise the places to which I travel remains, but now that my vision is different, digital photography feels too perfect, too representative of what is actually in front of me, rather than what I can see of it. Instead, I found a way for travel photography to better reflect the world as I perceive it - and that way was to embrace analogue processes.
Film, for me, is perfect precisely because it's unpredictable, sometimes unreliable, and magnificent in its capacity for beautiful mistakes and serendipity. You cannot take a picture and then immediately check it before reshooting with film; you must wait until the roll (typically 24 or 36 frames) is finished and can be processed and printed in a darkroom. You have no idea what you have captured until the very end. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, things go wrong. All this nerve-wracking potential for error means you are never complacent about taking a picture.
I was lucky to have an old-school photographer for a father, so I had an expert on hand as I got to grips with a world that I'd grown up around but to which I had never previously felt that connected. We built a darkroom in our bathroom, and he showed me how to crack open a film canister with a bottle opener inside a light-proof tent. He showed me how to treat the exposed film with chemistry to take away its sensitivity to light, revealing the negatives we would then use to make prints. Together we spent hours in that small, gloomy room with a single red light bulb, growing dizzy from chemical fumes, counting the seconds and watching shapes draw themselves onto the paper's surface as though sketched by ghosts.
I came to appreciate the exquisite fragility of film photography, whereby the tiniest variations in light or time or liquid can affect a print in myriad ways. Losing my sight made me more aware of the finely-tuned instrument that is the human eye, but learning about film photography made me aware of the mechanical majesty of the camera, the synthetic eye. It's a piece of technology that is so commonplace now, and yet I believe Arthur C. Clarke was not quite right when he said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". It is the very early forms of photography that seem most like magic to me, even though we have long since refined and surpassed them. We shouldn't take this technology for granted - just as we shouldn't take vision for granted, either.
Film was a way for me to level the photographic playing field. For example, my favourite kind of film to use is colour infrared, over which I have the same amount of control as anybody else. For infrared light unifies us all: no one can see it, blind or sighted. It is not contained within the visible spectrum for humans, so using infrared film in a camera teaches you to be aware of the invisible. Light and colour will not be as you see them in front of you, and that takes some getting used to. The focusing distance is also different for infrared light, so you learn to train the camera at a different plane to get the right parts at their sharpest.
With colour infrared film, shot right, you can expect riotous violet and magenta foliage under turquoise skies. Black and white infrared film, when used in bright weather with the sun at a certain angle, reveals black skies and trees that appear laden with snow. It's tricky to get spot on, but when you unlock the full potential of infrared, the results are worth it.
The more I grapple with progressive sight loss, the more I find myself wanting to explore the world around me with my mechanical eye. In many ways, I'm glad that blindness has offered me such a fresh perspective. No longer do I stand before a gorgeous, far-flung vista and tap without effort at a screen. Taking photographs has become about so much more than faithfully capturing what is visible; now it encompasses a poignant awareness of what can go wrong with our cameras, mechanical or otherwise. The most important lesson I've learned is that even when eyes and cameras are broken or make mistakes, we can still find and appreciate beauty.