Seeing in Isolation 1

A blonde woman seated in an office chair smiles warmly at the camera.

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.


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.

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.

The Seeing in Isolation digital stories are available on Multistory’s website.

A white man in his early eighties with a trim grey beard sits in a dimly lit room surrounded by vintage arts and crafts furniture.

Graham was a landscape architect. He collected vintage arts and crafts before he lost his sight. Surprised to find his curtains closed still from the first heat wave, he offered to open them. I declined saying that I wished to photograph him without any changes. What I had forgotten from a previous occasion meeting Graham is that he talks nonstop. In this moment, I called out his name catching him off guard long enough for me to press the shutter button.

  A white man holding a small garden fork kneels among vegetables and nasturtiums. Next to him is a bucket and his folded white cane.

I asked Dan if I could photograph him at Salop Drive Market Garden in Oldbury where he volunteers. The three-acre working market garden and local food project belongs to Ideal for All, a non-profit organisation. Dan, being a joker, took me to the far end of a tunnel overgrown with marrows. For the occasion, he wore his Derby County Football Club shirt as a mark of loyalty to the Rams.

  A middle-aged white man wearing a Greyhound Trust pale green shirt and dark trousers smiles broadly while standing with a greyhound on a leash.

I asked Rickie if I could photograph him at the Greyhound Trust Hall Green, Lichfield where he volunteers walking the dogs. As Emma Chetcuti, the Director of Multistory, had expressed a wish to see Rickie photographed with a greyhound. Rickie volunteers also at a homeless charity. He has many interests including visiting the Black Country Museum where he plays the piano occasionally.

A middle-aged British Asian man leans forward in his chair smiling. To his right in the sitting room doorway stands a slim white woman of similar age.

Before meeting Asham and Heather I had heard about their companionable friendship. This struck a chord with me, and I asked to be introduced to them. Asham is partially blind and lives alone. Heather has her own home close by. The intangible combination of his humour and her reserve I hoped to show in this photograph.

  A middle-aged couple sit on a sofa in their conservatory with a toy snowman between them and a teddy bear on a chair nearby.

I photographed 12 Sandwell Visually Impaired members in less than a week to work around the August 2022 national rail strikes. My longest time was spent with Steve and Jean, giving me a chance to relax. Steve was reading out loud snippets from the Black Country Bugle Annual. Later Jean told me she liked sitting in this spot near the back door listening to the water feature Steve bought for her.

  A middle-aged British Asian woman has linked arms with her personal assistant, a young Ghanian man. They are in front of a redbrick building with flower boxes and hanging baskets full of petunias.

Perm and her personal assistant, Chester stood near their place of work to be photographed. The combination of the Union Jack bunting marking the Queen’s Jubilee and their light-hearted exchange, both ignoring the first drops of rain, shares a story far beyond the moment.

A white stocky man with a beard in his forties is making a photograph of a passing narrow boat. He is under a bridge in front of a wrought iron gate.

We wished to show Steve’s two interests, photography and narrow boats. He took me to the Netherton Tunnel in the West Midlands, the last canal tunnel to be built in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The total length of this branch canal is 2.4 miles giving ample time in the mossy cool for us to set up our cameras and wait for a narrow boat to pass before photographing.

  A young white woman is making crafts on a tray. She is seated in a conservatory and garden shrubs can be seen in between the vertical blinds.

Faye relies on touch to create her tactile crafts and decorative stationery. She told me that her mother sometimes joins her in making crafts. Their home has an inviting atmosphere, and the neighbourhood cats think so too. Cats appear from all sides, taking over the driveway, especially when her father comes home from work and brings out the box of treats.

  A white woman with short blonde hair stands in front of deejay entertainment equipment singing into a microphone.

Former hospital nurse and singer, Sarah wanted me to photograph her singing karaoke in her local pub. She mistook my camera for the microphone when I was setting up making us both laugh. Unable to see the lyrics on the display, she sang two songs by heart. It touched me that her dress was bought especially for the occasion.

A man is seated at an exercise machine working his upper arms. A volunteer is beside him.

Ian was a postman and really enjoyed his work until his sight loss meant it was impossible for him to continue. He works out at the Portway Lifestyle Centre, Oldbury. A volunteer helps him locate the equipment by Ian holding onto the back of his wheelchair. Ian is a positive person and has a phrase that really strikes a chord with me. He says: “I’m living my best life”.

  In a small backyard garden, a middle-aged white woman is positioning her bow showing what she would do to release the arrow.

Blind competing archer, Trish generously offered to set up her equipment and show me her medals, she had won in archery competitions. She is the only blind archer representing Walsall Archers in the West Midlands and is a 2022 Merlin Archery Ambassador. Trish has her sights on the Paralympics.

  A white woman in a hot tub wearing sunglasses, only her head and shoulders in view, is laughing in the direction of the camera.

Pure tonic is how I would describe Lisa’s infectious laugh. We met on a virtual group called GoggleVox set up by the Chair of Sandwell Visually Impaired for members interested in television programmes with audio description. Lisa agreed for me to photograph her in a hot tub in the garden equipped for family entertainment. It felt like we were on holiday.

    A man sits at a table, his mouth is wide-open, mid-laugh. Behind him, a poster shows people on exercise bikes.

Mike is seated in the Portway Lifestyle Centre cafeteria, Oldbury. True to form he is laughing at something I said that he found funny.

  A middle-aged British Asian man, listening to music through headphones, is seated on a bed next to a white teddy bear.

Mr Lal is happiest listening to music, especially songs by Elvis Presley. He does not allow his sight impairment to hinder his wish to help others, as he did me when I photographed him. He invited me into his daughter’s bedroom, which had the best natural light in the house, insisting, “You take your time. This is not about me. You must be pleased with the results”.


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.