Life and the experiences of people living with sight loss have changed dramatically over the years. Sandwell Visually Impaired (SVI) in the West Midlands, UK wanted to capture first-hand recollections of how it used to be in the past, and what it was like for blind and visually impaired people in childhood and growing up with a visual impairment before these memories are lost.
SVI is a user-led organisation of blind and visually impaired people, their families and carers living in Sandwell. They provide services that include health and well-being activities, emotional and practical support, and participation in arts and cultural projects. Over the past 10 years, SVI has been involved in socially engaged photography and storytelling projects with the West Bromwich arts organisation, Multistory. One of these was the collaboration, Seeing in Isolation. I was the commissioned photographer and felt an immediate affinity with SVI – so much so, that I became a member in 2019.
Every-day conversations often remind me of South Africans I knew as a child going to school in a town an hour’s drive outside of Cape Town. The warmth and wish to help me, I experienced collaborating on Seeing in Isolation was more intimate in Unseen Memories. In one instance, it felt like we had both lost sight of our reason for coming together and were quietly appreciating an exchange of interests. My photographing was in the comfortable pauses.
Unseen Memories is a Creative Black Country funded oral history-focused project. Sandra Troth, SVI’s Development Worker and I facilitated the virtual group discussions exploring storytelling using personal objects and/or photographs relating to an individual’s early memories of living with blindness. Group discussions included how to make the creative content accessible online to blind, partially blind, and deaf-blind people while engaging to non-blind viewers. Ray Gormley, the editor of Sandwell Talking News recorded the participants sharing their stories with the support of volunteer, Pam Cross. The group discussions and interviews helped me to work with the participants in choosing settings that related to their stories. The visual material is presented online as a diptych reflecting the theme of past, through photomontage on the left, and the present, as depicted in my portraits. I worked with Wojciech Wolocznik, who provided access support to put together each story with audio and photographs.
Photomontage is an approach that I have not tried before in making a project accessible to a diverse audience whilst considering its visual aesthetic. In this instance photomontage also became a device to encourage those who can see to look more closely, to be enticed to listen to the audio recordings or read the transcripts, and to receive a greater sense of what it might be like to have no or limited sight. Unseen Memories was first shown during the September 2023 National Eye Health Week.
Each participant’s story, recorded in their voice, is included with a transcript and the photographs.
There is a book to be written about Ray’s earliest memories growing up on a squatters’ camp in post-war England due to a housing shortage. He returned to the area, known as Perry Hall Park for the first time since he was a small boy and tried to find the metal Bailey bridge, he ran across into the camp singing Billy Goats Gruff.
My unseen memories, from blissful unawareness to blind school.
I'm Ray. I go right back to the 1940s, when I was born. Bear with me, please if I go back to those early years before I describe the two objects, I want to share with you.
I came into a world which was still bomb damaged. An industrial landscape. Smogs. The National Health Service was starting out at that time too, and there was a housing shortage.
At this time, I was living with Mom and her family in an overcrowded council house on the outskirts of Birmingham. The only way of escaping that was for my family to set up home on one of the squatters’ camps which was springing up on the edges of Birmingham at this time. So, on a dark night my family moved into an empty army hut on the edge of Perry Hall Park. In fact, a lot of people were taking over ex-army huts and such around this time because of the housing shortage.
My earliest memories are running out of our new home round to neighbours and to family friends who had also moved onto the camp to talk to them. And running up the nearby bank to watch the steam trains whizz by. I was quite unafraid and unaware of any danger, but my Mom was certainly aware and she would often run after me and drag me back screaming. At this time, there seemed little to fear. There were bikes and motorbikes, but almost nobody owned a car. It seemed a very safe space at that time. It did to me, but not to Mom, who was very fearful of me running around so freely. I so well remember skipping over the metal Bailey bridge into the camp singing Billy Goats Gruff and fearing the troll really did live under the bridge and would eat me for his supper.
[Billy Goats Gruff tune plays – Going trip, trap, trip, trap over the rickety rackety bridge. Trip, trap, trip, trap, hop a skip, hop a skip. The big bad troll stuck his head up and said: I am a troll folderol and I'll eat you for supper.]
Quite soon after this, we moved into a brand-new council house. It was very nice and backed onto open fields with a babbling brook running nearby, which I would run out to and gaze and look at with Mom running after me fearful as always, and dragging me back, complaining. And so, to the first object I want to share with you.
It was 1953, the Queen's coronation, which me and the family and a lot of others all watched on a tiny black and white TV set. I could hardly see this, and I didn't really see the crown being placed on the Queen's head, so I didn't relate the crown to the Crown Bank money box I was presented with at the fete in the afternoon. I remember it as a lovely object, a golden colour with nice scarlet covering and had a sort of velvety feel to it, and it was nice to look at too. It's long since got lost, but you can see many of them now for sale on eBay and around the Internet.
It was only when I arrived at the special partially sighted school that it became apparent, I could see much less than I thought, or perhaps anyone else thought at the time. I wasn't learning to read and so I was sent to see a specialist, an eye doctor we called Doctor Tree. He was quite an irritable, irascible sort of person who got annoyed when I couldn't read the words or the pictures of animals on the chart. He sighed, and concluded, this boy has to go to a special school. There's a nice blind school you can send him to. They've got horses. You'll enjoy it there.
When I got to the school, there were no horses. I was quite unhappy and miserable, of course, for the first few days after getting to boarding school. But I soon started to learn to read Braille and then to write it. At first on the writing frame, one dot at the time. The school soon persuaded my parents to buy me a Stainsby Braille Writer, a three-piece affair, which came in a neat little case. It was very, very noisy and it's hard to imagine the amount of noise when twelve or more of us in a class were banging away writing our short stories or essays.
I went on later to get a Perkins, and that was quite a noisy machine too, but the advantage with the Perkins was it was an upward Braille writer. That meant that unlike the Stainsby, you could read what you were writing while you were writing it. You didn't have to take the paper out of the machine to read what you were writing.
OK, I couldn't find a Stainsby because they're pretty hard to come by, so here's the second noisiest Braille writer, the Perkins Brailler. [Keyboard makes loud clattering noise, and a bell dings] I am writing on the Perkins for the Unseen Memories project, full stop.
So, at last I became aware that I was blind or registered blind. Gone were the innocent days of the squatters’ camp.
Sandra’s story connects her love for her job as SVI’s Development Worker and the fun she has with her grandchildren. She reflected on how home and work come together. The standing Buddha sculpture often features in SVI Zoom meetings. In the photomontage, she holds the photograph, I made for Multistory's Seeing in Isolation project.
My name is Sandra Troth. I've got an eye condition that's called Retinitis Pigmentosa, or RP for short, and my condition has come on slowly over the years. It was identified when I was about five or six, when I couldn't see a moving ball when we were playing catch, I couldn’t see the moving ball. My parents took me to the opticians, and they realised that I had got this eye condition which would gradually over time get worse to the point that eventually I would have no sight at all.
My sight was quite good to start with, but it's gradually deteriorated over the years. Particularly since my 40s really.
I'm the Development Worker with Sandwell Visually Impaired (SVI). My role is to support the organisation to develop and to improve services for blind and visually impaired people in Sandwell.
The Unseen Memories Project is funded from Creative Black Country, and it aims to capture people’s memories, people who've grown up with sight loss or acquired sight loss at a fairly young age, teenagers, etc. And it's to capture their memories and look at the changing picture of how people of all ages have coped with their sight loss. How it's impacted on their sense of identity and their sense of who they are.
The project came about because we were going out and chatting to people, older people, and sometimes younger people too who had fantastic stories to tell about their life and their times. And we started to think about how people's life experiences are changed. People who went to special school, people who went to mainstream school. And how people’s opportunities and life chances has changed over the time.
We looked at running a reminiscence project which included a photography and arts feel so we engaged with Karren Visser and Ray Gormley to develop this project.
I love my work. I love what we do. But I also like to play sometimes, and I've got two lovely grandchildren, George and Molly, and we do lovely things together. We go to festivals and go to fun events and try to relax and have fun and doing the kind of things that you might not necessarily think that a visually impaired grandma would do.
We've done roller coaster and fun fair rides at Carter’s Steam Fair. We've done fun in the garden with the bumper car that's in the garden, and we've also had fun at music festivals and days out.
I'm very lucky because both of my grandchildren are fully sighted and although Retinitis Pigmentosa is a condition that is hereditary, there's no history of it in our family. So, it's not passed down so far.
Jean remembers her time in hospital as a little girl with deteriorating sight in the 1960s. She was given a money box and not being allowed out of bed, its tactile qualities and contrasting colours were a comfort and joy to her. The photomontage includes the hospital Tudor façade with the Shadows’ song lyrics.
It was the early 1960s. Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows were in the charts. “We’re all going on a summer holiday”, was a popular song. Only, I was not.
[Music plays. We're all going on a summer holiday. No more working for a week or two. Fun and laughter on our summer holiday. No more worries for me and you.]
I was going away to Exhall Grange boarding school for partially sighted children in Coventry. I was ten years old. My immediate impression was that the school buildings looked old and dull. The site was previously used by the army in the Second World War.
In my first year during a routine check-up with the school optician, he suspected that I had a detached retina. The next day I was admitted to Peabody Eye Hospital. I needed surgery and would be there for a month. It was all very bewildering. My parents were notified by the school phoning the village post office to let them know. This was sixty years ago and then not many homes had telephones.
My mum and dad could only visit once a week due to Dad's work and having to find someone to look after my brothers and sisters. On one visit they gave me a money box which was a present from our next-door neighbour. I have looked after and treasured my money box. It is very tactile. He is about four inches wide and five inches tall. He is pottery. He has wavy hair, a yellow collar with a dark blue bow tie. His eyes are about the size of a one pence piece or my thumbnail. His pupils are black and move when you tilt him.
As I was not allowed out of the hospital bed, with him being so tactile and colour contrast for someone with such limited vision, he was a comfort and joy to me. A good memory in what was a very difficult time for me, as a little girl with my sight getting worse.
Mary chose two objects in sharing her memories. The 1930s Westminster chiming clock reminded her of her grandparents, who she was very close to growing up, and a 1970s jewellery box they gave her. In the recording Mary’s intonation is in unison with her fingers scanning Braille as she is transported back to her childhood.
My name is Mary Howe. I was born in Nottingham and I've been visually impaired all my life. I don't ever remember being aware of being different. I don't remember when I became aware of it really.
My story centres around my grandparents, their names were Louis and Ernest Motley, and they were my mother's parents. Granddad was deafened by the shelling while serving in the Royal Corps of Signals in the First World War. And I would often help him by telling him what people said when they did not speak clearly enough for him to understand them.
My Gran was a little bird-like lady who was always cooking and baking, and passed on her skills to me as well as teaching me how to knit and crochet. She was very tiny. She was shorter than I am and I'm only 5 foot tall and she was always hopping about from one, from one place to another like a little bird.
My object. My first object is a 1930s Westminster chiming clock, which I bought in memory of my grandparents. One of my earliest memories is of being put to sleep on the sofa in the back room of their little rented house in New Basford, Nottingham. I loved listening to the clock chiming, and it would always make me feel secure and comforted. I bought this clock because it chimes every quarter.
My second object is a 1970s jewellery box which is lined with velvet and has a little ballerina on the top. This is was a musical box given to me by my grandparents for Christmas when I was 10 years old. I still have the box today and it still plays a tune called ‘Fascination’. I love this because it's so tactile and also it reminds me of my grandparents, who I was very close to.
Sabah shares her memory of riding her bike, a favourite childhood pastime that stopped when it became harder for her to see. Her story speaks of hopes and dreams and how she is adapting to ongoing sight loss. Everyday pleasures, cooking, a visit to the Poundshop, and day trips mingle with her wish to marry and get on with life.
I'm Sabah and I was born in West Bromwich. I had no sight problem when I was born. My sight started to go eventually.
I liked doing exams, doing coursework at school, reading books. I liked going out, riding a bike.
I started learning how to ride a bike when I was about 10 years old, I think. And I used to go to the park with my Dad and he used to teach me. We used to do a lap all the way round the circuit. It was a bright pink colour and I got it for my birthday present when I was about 16 years old. I miss not being able to ride my bike.
I enjoy doing baking, cooking, going out with friends and family. I cook pasta, lasagne, noodles, and I bake cakes. Or I sometimes go out to the Poundland shop to West Bromwich to Merry Hill, Dudley and sometimes I go out on day trips to the beach, at Bournemouth. I really like Bournemouth.
The only thing I can't see is I can't read the letters. I can't write. I can't see from far either. I mean I can use my phone to take a photo of the letters and then zoom in. But I also have an electronic portable reader which the Council gave me, which is very helpful because it helps to zoom in to the writing.
I went to Birmingham City University studying early childhood studies. I only did course work and assignments. I didn't get much help, but only because I didn't declare my disability. Had I declared my disability, I would have got a lot more support and help that I needed. I was OK because I was able to travel to the university there and back on my own. I was able to navigate around the campus. I was also able to read books. I used to take photos of the books and zoom in on my laptop. I travelled there by train and train was easy. Train’s easy to travel on, on my own.
I'm not going to the university, so now I would like to find a job. I want to build my own career, especially because I might be getting married soon. I would like a career in teaching, would like to teach younger children, so the age of four or five. I'm hoping to be married by September (Sabah is giggling while she is saying this) and then I will look for work. My husband to be works at a barber shop. And when we get married, eventually, he will come over here and open his own barber shop as a business and I'll be staying in Oldbury.
I would like to take up cycling again, but I'm not going to just because of my sight loss. There's always the dream, isn't there?
It was Joseph’s 21st birthday. He and his family were on a Dartmouth Park walk with SVI volunteers. His interests in art, walking his dog and cookery are seen in the context of his understandable apprehension of living with deteriorating sight and needing to ‘keep fighting’ for support to be registered blind.
My name is Joseph. I was born in 2001 and I am currently visually impaired. I went to primary school, then after that I went to a school to George Salter Academy, in the Carters Green area. More of a public school instead of an Academy. Then a special sort of school. Special school was more like support with helping me around when I didn't…So I asked for large prints of text that I had like in school so I could see what I'm reading.
When I went to school I made about four friends. They were really kind to me and really good to me at the time about my eyesight. Then, as I went to school, I learned art at school, and cookery as well. I really enjoyed those. Like at art, I had to take my glasses off to see what I was doing to help me focus a bit more with all the detail and the colour contrasts as well on the on the art pieces that I was doing and the paintings as well. So, I did one sort of Picasso-y art piece that I did in my art class as well. Well, which if I took my glasses off, they had a bit of support there with them telling me and which colours was which that I was using. We had a what they called also like a blind sort of like drawing. So, I had to look at a picture they give you of an art piece and Picasso was drawn and then we had to like copy that down. Well, I'd had a support teacher with me at the time telling me which colour is which and where I was drawing as well. But she was really helpful, so even though I made mistakes here and there she helped me with my hand work, where I was drawing.
She helped me on my own, like telling me where my equipment is and telling me which colours that I had. And then I continued on my own, like drawing, painting and finishing off that piece.
I did like a pop art, sort of, painting with bold colour, bright colours like red, yellow and colours in a like comic sort of way. After that, I really enjoyed it as well. I think that I find it a bit more easier if I'm honest with the pop art pieces that I did because I could see them colours more brighter than the Picasso piece that I did, so I could see which colour’s which, well, especially in a very well-lit room as well because when they… because I told them. we had to take on another room. I told them I couldn't do that because it was too bright and the light sensitivity in that room was too bright for me. And I had kept… and it kept hurting my eyes, I kept squinting as well. So, my support teacher took me down to another room. Where it was a bit like still, like lit, but not as lit as the other room and it wasn't as painful for my eyes then.
Me and Dad have been going to try and get me registered at the hospital. I am registered visually impaired, bit of a battle, in itself, of losing a bit of my sight as well in my good eye around my peripheral vision area on my right side of my good eye and underneath as well.
I believe if I get like registered, there’s more support I'll get, especially at the specialist from the hospital. Especially from other teams as well. If they know I’m registered visually impaired, then I believe I will get more support then, I’ll get more accessories and more things to help me with my eyesight as well. Then my everyday things like with my cookery, or with my painting or even if I'm walking with my dog as well in the park. It's, I believe if, I believe if I keep fighting and then trying to get myself registered blind it'll be more like worth it in the end as well.
Rachel shared her vivid memories of receiving letters from her Mum and Dad when she was at weekly boarding school. The project participants were fascinated to know more about the tactile collage letters of some of Rachel’s favourite things, her mother cut out of bits of fabric, and Rachel has kept for nearly 50 years.
My name's Rachel Lee. I'm registered blind and I live in the Black Country now, although I haven't always lived here. [In a Wiltshire accent] I lived in Wiltshire, so I haven't got the accent that I used to have. Not now. [Returns to her usual accent]
I've lived in the Black Country for oh, gosh, about 30 years now. I work in the young adults’ transitions team as a lead officer, and I work with patients with learning disabilities and autism who are in hospital and trying to get them discharged as quickly as possible. So, I think I've got quite an interesting job and a good life in the Black Country. I’ve been married for 13 years to my husband, and we have 3 cats.
The objects I've chosen are letters from my Mum and Dad written to me when I was at boarding school. I was at two boarding schools, but the first one was Linden Lodge. And I was there from five years old up until eleven. I used to wait, very hopefully, with anticipation every weekday morning – I came home at weekends, so I was a weekly border. So, when it came to about Tuesday or Wednesday, I would be waiting very impatiently for the post to come in our classroom to see if I'd got a letter from my Mum and Dad. This is because they were really special letters for me. My parents didn't know Braille and obviously I was only just learning Braille. So, in order to send me something that would mean something to me, my Mum wrote these particular letters. They were on a piece of paper. They were collages of different things, usually animals, birds, trees. I think some had sun and moons on them, but all like collages in fabrics that I would be able to feel and that would mean something to me.
So, in the two pictures that you have, there is one with lots of different animals on cats, dogs, foxes. I think there's a squirrel there and the other picture was of a great big cat done in velvet, because that was my favourite material. She's just sitting, I think there's some trees around that that were made of felt. The ground or grass my Mum put carpet on there. So, these were really lovely things that I could feel that meant that, you know, my Mum and Dad were thinking of me although I was at school. So, it was very, very special to me to have these letters and I really looked forward to reading them, to feeling them. There was a little note inside all of them that said, whatever it said, love from Mum and Dad and things like that. But I really enjoyed these letters. I think I've kept around eight of them. When I look back on these letters, it's interesting because I didn't even know where I was going to find them. I had an idea where they were, but I haven't seen them for a very long time. I thought I knew where they were, but my husband found them in an old toy box that I'd kept with lots of other objects in.
It was really nice looking back on them and thinking just how ahead of her time my Mum was in her thinking, I guess because she put all that kind of love and attention into those letters, which was a wonderful thing to do for communication to me. But I do wonder, when we came to do the photography, my Mum was there, and I was looking at them with her. I do, looking back, wonder if actually they did start my collection of things. Because it has been pointed out to me that I do have a lot of different ornaments and different, well stuff, in my home. Lots of China flowers, lots of cat ornaments, lots of elephant ornaments, some wooden bears that I collect, and I've always collected different types of tactile ornaments. Mostly animals and flowers. And I do wonder now, looking back whether that is because of those letters, and whether that was something that I subconsciously… first things I collected and it's down to that.
It was a lovely experience to be able to share them with my Mum again. I'll always keep them because I mean, my Mum is 90 now, so we've had a lot of years together and it's a lovely memory to still be able to have. I mean these are something that's that are over 50 years old or just under 50 years old.
It's a lovely memory, one that I shall keep treasuring.