My digital story squeezes into 9 minutes life as a grubby myopic toddler to missing the South African veld and an arts project with blind and visually impaired people in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. This is part of Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.
Seeing in Isolation was a collaborative project undertaken between 2020 and 2021 by the arts organisation Multistory, members of Sandwell Visually Impaired and me. The project invited blind and visually impaired Sandwell residents to share their stories in short digital films made up of audio recordings, photographs from family albums, music and animation. Seeing in Isolation aims to challenge people’s understanding of sight loss and show that blind and visually impaired people want to be part of the visual world.
Although I began the project photographing individuals and hearing their stories in person, the Coronavirus pandemic meant that we had to adapt our plans to collecting stories over Zoom, on the phone and via voice recording. Participants worked with us to choose the experiences they most wished to highlight, and they were involved in writing and recording the script. The process was as important as the final outcome, as each person co-created and audio-described their digital story.
Sandra is the Development Manager of Sandwell Visually Impaired. She lost her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa. Her support for others affected by sight loss is admirable.
Mike is seated in the Portway Lifestyle Centre cafeteria, Oldbury. True to form he is laughing at something I said that he found funny.
Despite this project's being created during the Coronavirus pandemic, with many participants shielding in their homes, it was surprisingly absent from the stories. Instead, participants shared memories and reflections on personal relations, hopes, dreams, the everyday, and the challenges faced by blind and visually impaired people. These stories have universal themes of resilience, including how Helen overcame obstacles to realise her dream of opera singing. Craig’s journey to acceptance after he became blind in his twenties because of his diabetes gives us a window into his world which includes hallucinations caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Jean’s story of faith and love is beautiful in its timelessness. Perm speaks for many young women, pushing boundaries to break free from family and community expectations. Time constraints and virtual adaptations meant that we could not include all the stories that were shared with us, and there are many more that share a sense of a strong, vibrant community.
I will be completing the SVI members’ portraits for Seeing in Isolation with the support of Multistory in 2022.
The Seeing in Isolation digital stories are available on Multistory’s website.
The first day you’re sized up for a white cane, it’s with the knowledge that this isn’t like trying on a pair of shoes or a new dress. No, this cane will help with mobility, will help others to see that you may not see them, or that you’re about to mistake an opportunity to cross the road.
That said, the white cane begins to define you. People walk past and stare, skirt around you, apologise for bumping into you, look harassed when they trip over your white cane. While your focus needs to on the left, right sweep that picks up textures on the pavements –dips, steps, corners, bollards while you try to appear like everybody else going about their business. In time, you have callouses on your hand, your wrist aches.
It’s with this awareness that as a commissioned photographer with Multistory to explore sight loss through my photography, I suggested a workshop with Sandwell College and Sandwell Visually Impaired to make a GIF that shows this feeling of bombardment at the same time as trying to stay in rhythm with the sweep of the cane to avoid obstructions. As this repetition – over and over and over again – is what a GIF does so vividly.
The workshop is part of a bigger project for those with visual impairment to be able to share their stories within Sandwell to raise awareness of what it is like to be visually impaired. It’s my hope that those without visual impairment who see this GIF on social media may say hello next time to us white cane users, so we can share what we have in common.
Sandwell Visually Impaired member, Terry Burling during a workshop led by Karren Visser for Sandwell College students, 2020 © Angela Grabowska. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.
Sandra Troth, Development Worker from SVI said:
"With the onset of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, it was amazing that the project carried on. Photography is traditionally an art that blind and visually impaired people feel isn’t for them. Then add lockdown and the odds start to look insurmountable. There’s been challenges along the way, but talented and artistic people, creative minds, determination and resilience have worked together to make the project something new, real and very exciting. It has given our members a real sense of self-worth to know they have really been involved in something that challenges people’s understanding of sight loss. You don’t need sight to have true vision; that comes from within. We are thrilled that we have been part of this project.”
Emma Chetcuti, Director of Multistory said:
“Producing ‘Seeing in Isolation’ to the backdrop of Coronavirus meant there were many challenges along the way and continuing the project would not have been possible without the team at Sandwell Visually Impaired and the determination of Karren Visser. Thank you to all of our collaborators for coming on this journey with us and making this possible.”
© Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.