I was declared legally blind 14 years ago, at the age of 40. I lost my driver's license and my social work position, for which I had earned a bachelor's and master's. It was my chosen profession, and I didn't give it up lightly. When it disappeared, so did some of my confidence and sense of identity. What was I to call myself if not a social worker?
I ended up becoming a photographer.
The words "legally blind photographer" don't sound like they should exist together. Indeed, until recently I didn't think this path was available to me. I'd always loved taking pictures, ever since I was a little girl, snapping shots of my family and pets with the Kodak and Polaroid cameras my mother always had around.
But I was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive blinding disease that deteriorates the retinas over time. And with retinitis pigmentosa comes night blindness, which meant I couldn't see in a darkroom to use the chemicals and develop photos, nor could I read the settings on a camera to shoot manually — all major problems in the era before digital photography. So as a teenager I decided, regretfully, to put my love of photography in a box and leave it alone.
I didn't feel bitter about it. It was just another adjustment I had to make given the vision problem I had.
The miracle of the digital camera
My condition didn't deter me from enjoying photography in my mind. I read about photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, and daydreamed about the kind of pictures I would make if I could — not family snapshots with a disposable camera, but those on the fine art, creative side of photography. Maybe a mountain, or a snow-covered field, or an unusually shaped tree. Definitely landscapes, because I'd grown up with rural scenery all around me.
Then, in 2013, after I could no longer drive, practice social work, or sketch drawings, I decided to turn my dream of being a photographer into a reality. I had heard so much about how easy point-and-shoot digital cameras were, and I wanted to try one.
I still have some vision. "Legally blind" doesn't mean completely blind. Each person's experience is different, but for me it means that everything I see is extremely blurry — oddly enough, like a camera lens that is turned so far out of focus that you can't distinguish a person from a tree, or see where steps begin and end, or where the restroom door is, or what a person's features look like. I see the general blurry shape of things, and the closer I am to something, the better I can determine what it is.
I still have some vision. Everything I see is very blurry — oddly enough, like an out-of-focus camera lens.
When the camera arrived in the mail, it sat for days unopened. I was afraid of what people might think or say: "A legally blind photographer?"
The question I asked myself.
I lost social work. This would be just another thing to lose.
Self-doubt crept in.
But the idea wouldn't leave me alone. And so, with a little nudge from my son — he actually took the first picture — I picked up the camera and walked around my backyard with it, snapping the shutter just to see what I could capture.
When I transferred the images to my 47-inch monitor, I was amazed at what I couldn't see in my own backyard, but what my camera could: purplish blueberries in some brush. Wild pumpkins at the edge of the woods. Individual brown leaves on a tree (it was fall of that year).
Not only could I take the kind of pictures I'd always wanted to take, I could see things with my camera that I couldn't see without it, like it's a second set of eyes. A double gift.
I didn't need a darkroom, because images are "developed" inside the camera. I didn't need to read the settings, because I had the camera set on auto.
How I work
I take most of my photos outside, in black and white — I see best in contrast, plus I've always admired the classic black-and-white style. Sometimes I move up close to something of interest while walking, hold the camera about three or four inches away from it, and snap the shutter.
Other times, I literally point randomly in the direction of blurry hills and vague shapes of trees, or whatever is out there in the world, and take a picture.
With landscapes and nature, my vision doesn't have to be perfect. I can be abstract and make mistakes.
People are more challenging to photograph. I can't tell if someone is looking at the camera, or if I'm cutting off heads, or centering, or if the lighting is right or wrong. I can capture someone in a general way, or a natural way, or in a candid shot, but doing formal portraits in a studio isn't for me. I've tried it, but you need better vision to do it well.
Then comes the heart of my work: I take my camera home to my large monitor to see what I've captured. There's a photography term called "the decisive moment." It means knowing when to snap the shutter at the perfect second. My decisive moments come after I've taken the pictures, when I make my selections on my big screen. I'm often surprised at the accidental pictures, like a bird perched in a tree, or power lines that make for an abstract composition.
I delete many more photos than I keep, and the ones I keep are the ones I can see best —high contrast, simple composition, and subjects I can make out fairly well.
I've never had formal photography classes, but I do use the art education I've had in the past, as well as my years of sketching. I also learn from my favorite photography "mentors" online, Ted Forbes and Ibarionex Perello, who both teach the art of photography.
How my low vision affects my art — for the better
If my vision condition is an asset to me as a photographer, it's in that it's helped define my style. I don't try to set up a photo or have any preconceived notions about what the picture should look like. I don't fret over how a shot should look beforehand.
I don't compare notes with other photographers with full vision, because I already know that their approaches and techniques are different from mine. They use a viewfinder, and can see details in the subject, background, and environment they're shooting. They may adjust settings to their taste. I don't worry about how other photographers work; I'm just happy to have found a way to do my own work with a camera.
I can see things with my camera that I can't see without it, like it's a second set of eyes
I don't agonize over my art. I snap pictures, then choose the ones I like. If I don't have any from the day's shooting that I like, it's okay. I can always take another picture. And when the day comes that I can't take pictures this way anymore, because my vision has deteriorated so much, then I will find a way for that to be okay, too, because I have a collection of photos that I'm happy with.
I'd like to think that my photography is pretty or interesting, but I can never really be sure unless someone tells me. I rely on people's reactions. It helps me to know how the photo makes others feel. I've had reactions ranging from "bleak and dreary" to "beautiful." I accept all of them, because I feel honored to be able to take photos. I've learned that it's hard to stifle creativity, and that there is more than one way to express yourself artistically. I've learned that with the right technology and a shift in perspective, people can do things they thought impossible.
Tammy Ruggles is a fine-art photographer in Kentucky. You can find more of her work at her website.