A woman in a green top holds a camera so that one half of her face is concealed in the refection of a window. A brightly lit garden is behind her.

This self-portrait with the garden reflected behind me was an attempt to show the contrast of light and shadow. My eyes struggle to adjust to such starkness and increasingly I find myself photographing without being able to see © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation,  produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.

“It took a tame giraffe in a South African game reserve to lick my face for my parents to register there was something wrong with their 5-year-old daughter’s sight.”

I am a visually impaired photographer whose practice is constantly adapting due to my degenerative myopia and glaucoma. Sight limitation since birth has given me an unusual way of seeing my surroundings and a sensitivity to those living in challenging circumstances. I am interested in approaches to gathering stories, so that individuals and communities are actively involved in the process and outcomes.

I have worked alongside a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Programme and parent-led charitable organisations in East Africa photographing children with neurodevelopmental impairment. My recent commission with the arts organisation Multistory (Seeing in Isolation, 2021) addresses the isolation that blind and visually impaired people often experience.

The combination of a photography major from the University of Cape Town, School of Fine Art and support from the late South African photographer David Goldblatt provided training in the principles of what denotes a strong photographic image. However, as my sight changes I find myself needing to accommodate my own heightened responses to my environment to remain connected. This makes me aware of the role photography plays in communication and improving an understanding of our differences and similarities.

I am interested in exploring audio description and ALT Text that is informative and provides insight into what is portrayed. This approach is also influenced by my experience photographing children with autism and their families in Kenya and Rwanda (Autism in Africa, 2012 – 2014 and The Burden of Care, 2014 – 2016), when parents realised there was something wrong with my eyes and the process of checking that my images were in focus became shared. They also registered my understanding of how overwhelmed their children are by harsh or fluctuating light, loud noise and unfamiliar smells. The children’s reactions were immediate and I had to learn quickly to photograph from inside their world.

My parents’ discovery of my poor sight when I saw the microvilli on the tongue, not the giraffe, is often a story that occasions laughter. I share how the first time I came home with glasses I rushed around pointing out mountains and trees. Humour I find is a way of dealing with less favourable experiences of disability. In my first year at school I learned to pretend, but it was not possible with thick cat’s-eye glasses to avoid teasing or being made to feel inadequate. In my teens contact lenses hid this enough for me to devise ways of seeing. Throughout school, university, in work situations, I kept quiet about my poor sight. This is no longer possible.

Personal experience as a visually impaired photographer is the basis for my interest in participatory photographic workshops that make images accessible to all. I see this as an opportunity for the full-sighted, blind and visually impaired community to be instrumental in showing how visual information is shared more broadly.

I welcome enquiries from organisations and individuals interested in socially engaged photography, to include commissions and the opportunity to collaborate in remote and on-site workshops.


Karren Visser