Sunday, 11 September 2011

Photography Course for the Visually Impaired Project

Story : Nipaporn Tabhun
Year 24th, Issue: 8106, Thursday 2nd December 2010,

Translation : Thitichaya Prompubesara , Anthony James Squibb
Photos : Pict4All Staffs


The View Finder and LCD monitor will no longer be necessary for one group of people
who shoot photographs ‘instinctively’ and not ‘visually’.

Photography is not only many art lovers’ dream but also for the visually impaired, who are
always considered to be people in photographs, not the ones pressing shutters. Just because, ‘Being unable to see’ is the cause that they are unable to take photos. Well, we can put it better this way – Change this thought to, ‘Do not (need to) look.’ 

From Inspiration
‘How could a blind person become a photographer?’

‘Choon’, or Mr. Nopadon Panyawuthikrai, has been always questioned by many people
every time he conveys his thoughts on a project to other people. It seems that the more
explanations he gives, the more question marks come into his story.
‘There is no one in Thailand that has yet run this project ever before. As per my research, there are less and less people who do the same thing as I am doing now, even in other countries. The first country that was a pioneer of this project was Japan, secondly, Israel, and I’m not certain about the third one whether or not it is the UK or the USA. We [Thailand] are the fourth country in the world running this project.’

Mr. Nopadon is referring to the ‘Photography Course for the Visually Impaired Project’. Project volunteers are from members of a social group called Pict4all—a photography lovers’ community that does not only aim for pleasure from photography, but also create smiles and joyfulness in society and various minority groups of people who are less fortunate than themselves. The project is inspired from the vision of a man who is totally passionate about photography, that man is Ajarn Tawat Malila

Picture taken by Blind Student. 
‘When it comes to photography, I always emphasise that motivation or inspiration in
photography is a top priority for a person who is going to do a photo shoot.’ Ajarn Tawat is
inspired, in return, by the resilience and resourcefulness of the physically & visually impaired, compelling him to kick off this project in Thailand.
Picture taken by Blind Student.
‘I went to Sa Nam Luang when the funeral of HRH Princess Kanlayaniwattana was organised there at that time. There was a lady in a wheel-chair. I was wondering why this lady was here and why she completely alienated herself from others. I walked past that lady turning my eyes to her, and then I saw that she had also brought her camera along. I asked her what was the inspiration for her photography. She replied that she loves photography so much. Photography is happiness.Therefore, I took her photo and told her that if she did not mind I would like to illustrate the photos of her I captured to be a part of my lecture.

Later, after this initial encounter, I went to Nan Province with our staffs to make a donation, we visited Khao Noi (Mount Noi). Khao Noi is a mountain landscape that has views overlooking Nan City. While I was admiring the views, I saw one man who was taking a photo. However, the way he took the photos was not typical, intrigued I walked down to him. It appeared that he had no arms from below his elbows but yet he still smiled. I asked him how he felt when he took photos. He answered to me that he was really happy. After his reply, I asked him for permission to photograph him, just like I did the lady I had met previously at Sanam Luang.’

Ajarn Tawat carried the stories of meeting these 2 physically impaired people into his
photography classes until he had a chance to go to a workshop and a photography exhibition where all the photographs on display were taken by Israeli blind people in June 2009. These events really inspired him to start this project.
Ms. Iris Darel Shinar tells me that when she conducted her photography class for the visually impaired, they were proud to say that they had a chance to do what sighted people do and they feel happy about this. I wondered about this until I went to observe the class last time (first-time session), and I found that it’s true. They are truly happy.
That filled me with confidence for running the project, especially, when all support comes from Mr. Nopadon and Pict4all members, who I strongly feel, can make the project a success.
‘Khun Choon has blindfolded himself three times, each time for 8 hours, to gain an empathy with his students. He has had his eyes covered up, and then wandered around places he had never been to before to shoot photos. I accompanied him one time to observe. Suddenly, I had the overwhelming belief that we will succeed because I am passionate to make this project here in Thailand, which no one has done yet. I think we should offer visually impaired people opportunities to be happy.’

Mr. Nopadon admitted that it is not easy to live your life in a dark world. You have to exercise other senses which must direct your path, but to be unable to see things sometimes makes him discover an unusual and unexpected happiness.

‘When we visually see things, our sight overwhelms our other senses as we see things with our eyes. But when we are blind, things we used to be worried or frightened about before are not such a big problem in photography at all... I can honestly tell you that I have taken photos for five years visually, but when I made myself blind, and took photos, it is the happiest moment I’ve ever had. Firstly, we couldn’t see anything, so we would never know how things look and what colours there were because we took all the photos instinctively from our heart. They were pictures of a barista, a merchant. We listened to their voices and we felt those voices were nice.

Those voices sounded happy. We assumed that they would be good photos to take even
though we were not sure if they would be good or not but our heart told us that they were happy.

We don’t need to worry whether they will be beautiful pictures or not, at the end of the day, we can’t see the photos, but there are images of divine feeling saved in a good part of our memories.

Being blind made me realise the way that we all take it for granted when we use our personal thoughts to replace feelings of people who have no chances for good opportunities in society.

This may seem somewhat a view of self-centredness.’

 Picture taken by Khun Choon being blindfolded himself
 To Visually Impaired

From the inspiration and the kernel of those thoughts, Mr. Nopadon gradually formed the
project and curriculums in order to propose them to The Bangkok School for the Blind, where Ajarn Tawat Malila and Ajarn Phuwaphong Pajonaripai are counsellors, as well as to muster support from the Art and Culture Office of Chandrakasem Rajabhat University 


‘First we contacted the school, and they said no to the project. They said there were many people wanted to come here for their own benefits. Then the Art and Culture Office of Chandrakasem Rajabhat University provided us assistance in terms of project coordination; thus we were finally allowed to run the project, said Nopadon.’

Rujirat Pawanno or Kroo Tao, an Assistant to Executive Department of The Bangkok School for the Blind, said that basically there will be groups of people who frequently visit the School, especially, celebs. When they come over, they will have photo shoots with the children as presents for the children. In so doing, some children are inspired to take photographs by themselves. It is observed by the way they feel the cameras with a gentle touch and inquisitively.

Picture taken by Blind student
 ‘They are really thrilled when they know there will be people to come teach them photography.

They doubt that they can do it. They know about the camera and its technology development.

Although when visitors come they will ask to touch the cameras or when teachers say ‘action!’ they will smile, but they never thought they will actually stand behind the lens pressing shutter themselves.’

Delighted by the possibility of the new experience that comes their way leads thirty visually
impaired students to register for this course. Nevertheless, there is a difficulty in providing
equipment to every student, as supplies are limited. Therefore, Kroo Tao decided to select ten completely-blind students to attend a pre-class session before the other twenty.
‘There will be course 2 and 3 conducted respectively, after the first one for the initial ten, as every student who applies for the course would love to learn. They all ask eagerly when they can start the course’, said Kroo Tao.

Picture taken by Blind student
Speaking to Mr. Nopadon that there should be sponsors like camera companies, etc, he said he first planned to ask for sponsorship too, but as there has been no such project running in Thailand before, many people can’t imagine what the project will be like.

‘Plus we are not sure whether or not this project will be successful; thus, we invested our own money for the start. We bought ten digital cameras, which are around 35,000 baht . We found after we had completed 3 course-groups, we got good feedback and discovered that the students can practically take photos themselves, so we decided we will donate all apparatus to the school, together with the photo albums.

The Art and Culture Office of Chandrakasem Rajabhat University will provide us with a budget for photo development. As we intend to create A4 photo albums for students, we will print photos with the size of 4” x 6”, by doing so there will be space to insert the Braille for them to do their photo arrangements.’

Picture taken by Blind student

The courses are just like fundamental courses that sighted people have, such as portrait,
macro, landscape, etc., which are all conducted in 6 sessions. Each session lasts 3 hours. From this experience, teachers found that they underestimated the students’ learning capability, and therefore, they had to revise the syllabus.

‘The first day of the class, we prepared our instructions for an hour of teaching, to show the students how to change batteries and SD cards. It turned out that when we started the session all the students came to report, only 15 minutes later, that they had done it already. When I asked them how they had done it, they told me that once they knew how to turn the camera on, they will feel the batteries to sense where their plus and minus are located. After that they will take them out. However, they will not remove the batteries right away while the cameras turned on. They have their own process to learn this by themselves. For the SD cards, when pressing and taking the cards out, they can correctly put the card back to its position just right as in the first instance. Sometimes people who are sighted can’t do it right as we never ever learn by heart. We do it wrong, and then we do it again to make it right. But this is the way of their learning’, said an impressed Mr. Nopadon.  

When we ask a volunteer teacher, Chaii – Mr. Tanongsak Thammawoot, how difficult or easy it is to teach the blind to shoot photos. He sincerely confessed that...

‘The word ‘teaching’ is not appropriate in this context. Apparently, they teach us instead.
Seriously, they are capable of doing the incredible, for example, to rotate photos that are
not in a correct composition. They locate cameras to their brows to adjust photo
composition, and many more amazing things. ‘Full of surprise’, are the best words to
explain everything about them. We eventually realise that tiny space we are feeling is our
selves. We thought it would be hard or near impossible to teach them, but in fact they are
really open-minded. They really are. The real blind are us instead. We take them for
granted that they have to be like this or that, but as a matter of fact they are full of
potential… When we first planned coming to teach them we thought in a limited manner
but we are finally given ways of thinking, perspectives, and millions of things that we
thought are not possible, but which actually are. ’

Picture taken by Blind student 

Same as junior students from Computer Science, Chandrakasem Rajabhat University, who are proud of what they have seen and found themselves shedding tears of joy during their first observation.

‘I never thought they could do it but I’m so glad when I saw what they were doing. I’m really proud of what they do’, said Ing – Matinee Srikaew, representative of Chandrakasem Rajabhat University students.

Picture taken by Blind student

 Now it’s time to interview photography students. Let’s start with a little naughty boy, Oat – Onepra Angsunart, 15, whose personality is really distinctive. He likes climbing up to take photos from high positions downward to objects even though he can’t see anything at all, or he will also do in a reverse way. His techniques make his teacher, Kroo Chaii, unable to stop himself from smiling every time Oat does this.

Oat told us that he could see everything like other people until he was 9 years old. One day while he was playing football, there was a lightning strike right in front of his eyes. After the lightening hit he could not see things clearly ever again, and that lead his visual ability to be completely out of control.

‘I feel that to be blind is better than a person who can see things because I won’t see anything bad. Being blind like this is somewhat peaceful. I don’t see something, which makes me feel disturbed. I sometimes want to go out by myself sightseeing but being blind is better anyway.’

Oat said the hardest thing about photography for the visually impaired is to shoot pictures in motion as he can’t see what direction the subject is moving in. However, he will still try to make this happen. He tries his very best to improve his photography skills in order to become a professional photographer in the future.

Picture taken by Oat - Onepra Angsunart , the blind student.
Another photography student, Phon – Suchanart Malathong, 12, told us that she loves photography but she never ever thought she would have the chance to take control over a camera and control the shutter herself.

‘I’d like my parents to see me taking photos. I want them to see that I can do it but I still didn’t tell them I’m taking this course’ (laughing), said Phon.

Picture taken by Phon , the blind student 
Nopadon said he’d like this project to be an ongoing work, which anyone can help carry out. To
expand the project success, he will sell posters of pictures that his students took, so they can be
proud of their work and receive an income they can actually earn by themselves.

‘We’ve planned to organise an exhibition of photography by the visually impaired. We’d
like to take this opportunity to say to Bangkok Art and Culture Gallery that when we
launch this event, we’d like them to please support us with the time and space for the
exhibition. We’d like people in society to realise that the happiness and capabilities of
the visually impaired are beyond what we all can imagine’, said by Nopadon.

 Recommended thread

Photo album taken by Blind students of The Bangkok School for the Blind