Picture this

Using their senses of hearing, touch and smell, blind photographers learn to record their world.

field workers 88 248 (photo credit: Sonia Moukhtar)
field workers 88 248
(photo credit: Sonia Moukhtar)
Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they're supposed to help you discover who you are. - Bernice Johnson Reagon Think back to countless times when a challenge or opportunity crops up, and weakness, fear of the unknown, or just the fact that it seemed too difficult made you back away from a possibly life-altering experience. Recently, Metro met two amazing ladies. One faces every challenge head-on, refusing to say "I can't." And the other has given her a very unusual challenge. Iris Darel-Shinar is a photography teacher, and Sonia Moukhtar is her student. What makes them a unique team is that Moukhtar is blind. As a girl, Shinar was interested in photography. At the time, she did not pursue it, but - as she says - eventually one's "creativity has to come out." With that in mind, she enrolled in a three-year course at the College of Geographical Photography in Tel Aviv. She describes that period as "the happiest years of my life." For her third-year project, she wanted to do something unusual that would benefit the community. Having read an article about blind photography students in Japan, she realized she had found the answer. Moukhtar, originally from Morocco, came to Israel as a young girl with her family in 1967. She spoke only Arabic and French. Enrolling in a Hebrew class led her to her teacher Herzl, who would eventually become her husband. He had immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1951. He was blind. Although they were blessed with two daughters, they wanted another child. Moukhtar's doctor told her that bearing another child might affect her eyesight. She chose to take the risk. Unfortunately, the doctor's prediction was correct, and 27 years ago she started seeing small black spots, a sign that her vision was beginning to weaken. Since she knew that in time her sight would go, it was not a surprise when distant objects and small letters became difficult for her to see. By age 30, she had to use a magnifying glass to read the newspaper. She wrote with a thick magic marker so that she could see her own words, but in time, even that did not help. She is now unable to distinguish between colors but she can tell if something is dark or light. Moukhtar does not know the reason for her blindness. Although no one in her family is blind except her sister, she says it might be genetic. Her three children and four grandchildren all have their vision. BUT MOUKHTAR is not the kind of person who gets discouraged or gives up quickly. Nor does she allow her disability to limit her. Moukhtar welcomed me to her Herzliya apartment, where I realized that - in spite of her impairment - she is like any other woman. Her home bears no evidence that its inhabitants are blind. There are no special gadgets. The house is immaculate. A large buffet is filled with knick-knacks, including some ceramic figurines that she made. On the buffet sits a large plasma television, and photos of family members adorn the tabletops. Pictures cover the walls, and a mirror is placed at the entrance to the apartment. A basket filled with toys was also in the living room, for Moukhtar finds time to take care of her grandchildren. Moukhtar said she decorates her home by herself, and fills the house so that her children and grandchildren can enjoy it. For the past 35 years, Moukhtar has worked full-time as a receptionist at the Herzliya Municipality. She also volunteers as a course organizer at the Club for the Blind in Herzliya. Proudly displayed on a table is a plaque awarded to her by the Lion's Club naming her "Herzliya's Volunteer Woman of the Year - 2006." She even registers for some of the classes offered at the club. Her hobbies include sewing (she uses a special needle), knitting, dancing, singing, ceramics and writing poetry, but her passion is cooking. Every Friday she prepares a large meal for the entire family (11 people including two sons-in-law and four grandchildren) in her newly remodeled kitchen. She says that to date, she "has never burned any food." Pointing to the table, she says, "The cinnamon, cumin, pepper are here; next row, salt, hot pepper…" and she continued listing the spices in their order. "When I cook, I can see the food," she says. So how did Moukhtar and Shinar find each other? Shinar, having found the subject for her project, contacted the Center for the Blind about three years ago. Moukhtar smiled as she remembered Shinar's telephone call. "Photography? Why not?" she laughed, and two weeks later, a group of 11 enthusiastic blind students had enrolled in the class. Shinar and her fellow photography student, Kfir Sivan, had no previous experience working with blind people, and they "came to them without any prejudice," she explains. "We were confident and believed in them," Shinar says. To develop an understanding of their new students' world, they blindfolded themselves for a few hours for a few days. Shinar says this experience made her feel "fearful, insecure and disoriented, as if I did not have the right grasp of the environment." TEMPORARILY ENTERING the world of their students helped them develop techniques to teach the non-sighted about art, proportion and composition. Shinar and Sivan discovered methods of teaching the novice photographers how to position their hands on the camera lens, using the distance between their hands as a guide. Teaching them to put the camera to their eyes was not easy, she remarks, because it wasn't instinctive for them. They also gave the students other tips (and some the students discovered themselves) - such as not taking pictures against the heat of the sun, or using sound - like the wind in a tree's leaves - to center pictures, or letting smell guide them toward certain objects. Shinar says that the students had difficulty in the beginning, and even their families and friends thought the idea of blind photography was irrational. Shinar and Sivan gave them the freedom to choose their subjects. They all took pictures of their homes. Shinar felt that it was their way of telling their stories, and also their way of showing the world their real lives. What surprised her was that she had assumed "that their homes would be bare but they were not at all." After a couple of months, the intimidation of taking photographs in public wore off, and she could see "the personalities of the photographers in their pictures. They wanted to show us that they are just like us," she says. The class, which was originally scheduled to last a year, has continued and is now in its third year. "What is touching is that they are still so motivated, so involved," Shinar confides. The students have advanced so much that they now take pictures of anything and everything. One homebound student takes humorous pictures of household objects. "Another student," Shinar says, "directs her pictures. She imagines the pictures in her head. It's beautiful because she thinks about what she wants to say." And yet another student had always been curious about photography but had never been allowed to touch her family's camera. "When she was finally given the chance, she was ecstatic to make [the camera] click." How is it that Moukhtar is able to take good pictures? She explains it very simply, as she touches a napkin holder on the table: "I feel an object, and take the picture." Moukhtar is possibly at a slight advantage over those born blind because she can imagine how things look. However, since her blindness, her other senses have become acutely developed, much more then those of a sighted person. Usually, she will ask people what's around her, and then her other senses take over. Which is the most important sense? "All of them," Moukhtar says, smiling. According to Shinar, even her students don't seem to understand how they do it. They compensate for their lack of vision by using what they have. However, there is no explanation of how Moukhtar managed to take a picture of an airplane in the sky, except - as she said - "When I heard the airplane, I took the picture." Shinar says she doesn't know "if it was luck or not. She took only one picture, and it turned out well." Why is photography important to Moukhtar? Through photography, she has been able to overcome something that is not connected with blindness. Even though she cannot see the actual pictures, she knows that she is creating memories. "It is a way of remembering good moments," she says. She is the only student who requests that her photographs be developed so that she can share them with her family. They provide a good source of conversation at family meals. According to Shinar, Moukhtar has an amazing memory. When Shinar offers suggestions or praise about her photographs, if she fails to comment on one, Moukhtar reminds her. "She knows what she took pictures of and what order they are in," Shinar says. As it turns out, Moukhtar is the family photographer. She recalls one Pessah feast when she set the table for 25 people, and was eager to show others how she had arranged it. Following Shinar's suggestion, she took a photograph from above. She photographs the grandchildren, and proudly captured her grandson eating from a big pot of food that she had placed on the floor during her weekly Friday family meal. Shinar says that she "did not imagine that the outcome of the photographs would be so impressive." It is difficult to tell that the photographs, which generally are of a high quality, have been taken by blind people. Now that the students have become competent, they will be working on individual projects, which Shinar hopes to present in a book. Moukhtar has a unique outlook on life. She believes that there is "a force that makes something open" each time she is in a bad situation. She says that "when one's approach is positive, one forgets the negative." How has Shinar benefited from working with the blind? She has learned that it is the sighted people that are blind. "The blind are happy people and are not crying about their destiny," she explained. "They do things with a lot of energy, and for me, during difficult times, thinking of them puts things into proportion," she continued. Shinar stressed the fact that there is no difference between the blind and those with sight. "We sighted people take things for granted. Their lives are more full than the lives of the sighted." Moukhtar does not want to be called "Sonia the blind" for she believes that she is "one of the seeing people." Moukhtar describes herself as an independent woman who knows how to take care of herself. She wishes that "sighted people would become closer to blind people instead of pushing them to the side, and looking down at them. I want to show them that I am just like them," she declares. Visit the project's Web site at www.theblindphotographer.com