Photographing the darkness

April 26, 2013

Little Rock, Arkansas

By Gaia Squarci

I’ll never forget the day I first came in contact with blindness. It was a day in November 2011. A couple of months earlier, I had come to New York to pursue photography, shaping an identity largely based on what I see and the way I see it. Blindness was pure terror for a photographer like me – and it was also mysterious.

On that day, I walked into Visions, a center for the blind, and 10 minutes later I was sitting on an armchair with a weird hat on my head, posing for a picture in a photography class. I was totally confused but simultaneously my focus crystallized. I wanted to see — and photograph — what the sighted don’t imagine is still possible for the blind.

Dale Layne, 31, was one of the blind photographers in that class. Dale is from Guyana and is talkative and composed. Since, he’s become a friend and a point of reference when I try to explore perceptions of space and time, identity, culture, memory and love, as heavily altered by the lack of vision.

Dale picked up the phone dozens of times to help me in this process and I was intrigued when one day he told me he would move to Arkansas to study IT in a school for the blind. I knew it would be a key experience for him. Technology has always been a passion for him but I had never seen Dale satisfied with his employment situation.

I recall seeing him disassembling a computer at home and fixing it in front of me, using the visual memory that he had from before glaucoma took his sight at age 19.

Aware of how sustainable employment is a crucial segment of identity in any capitalistic society, I wanted to go see this school that trained those who face enormous obstacles in order to realize their ambitions.

After the first night in Little Rock, I woke up with a stunning dawn outside my window. The red of the horizon faded very quickly into the blue just above. As a sighted person, my first thought was: what would I feel about this place right now, sitting on this bed, if I couldn’t see? That question stayed with me for most of the time I spent there. I became hyperaware of the smell of the cafeteria, the hiss of the computers, the change of temperature from one corridor to another. I imagined the space through the different forms of visual impairment I was getting to know.

The unemployment rate among visually disabled people in the United States is around 63 percent, according to the American Community Survey provided by Cornell University. Among those with jobs, underemployment is widespread. Michael Faillace, who is blind and works as an employment lawyer for disadvantaged workers, perhaps says it best: “If you’re blind in this country almost everyone is nice to you, until they have to give you a job.”

To fight the status quo, the two main goals at World Services for the Blind (WSB), where Dale studied, are job preparation and personal autonomy, unfailingly intertwined.

The school feels like its own world. Students come from everywhere in the United States, with diverse life experiences and different degrees of visual perception. There are sighted and visually impaired teachers and blind and visually impaired students. Everyone has a different level of sight. Vision, even challenged with limitations, is a privilege and an occasion to help the ones who don’t have any sight at all.

According to the school, employment rises to 70 percent among students within a year from the completion of their programs, and it often comes as a result of an essential psychological journey. “Those who get here are already halfway. Sometimes when you lose your sight you’re too insecure to start again, to not even talk about facing a job interview. If you don’t try you won’t make it, and it takes time to get there” student Miguel Mendez told me. Others confirmed that the experience of living on their own, learning to iron, cook, do the laundry, pack a suitcase, travel alone, is a fundamental part of what the school has to offer.

In trying to express that quiet, silent tension made of aspiration and need, I found myself struggling with images of people sitting at the computer under neon lights. Photographing was challenging. Everything I sensed in those days was directed to hope for the future but it made sense for everyone – me among them – to be there in that moment.

Many of the students had been working all their lives until they lost their jobs because of visual disability. A disease, an accident – it’s hard to reset yourself to do something that you never thought you would find yourself doing. It’s like reshaping your identity and it could happen to any of us.

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