The Good Fight

How To Teach Photography To The Blind

Teaching photography to a class of 20 blind students has taught Maria Iturbe to be a better photographer herself.

For most of the week, Mexican architectural photographer Maria Iturbe makes her living shooting building interiors and exteriors, as well as her fair share of executive portraits.

But about five years ago, a non-profit called Ojos Que Sienten, or Eyes That Feel, was looking for professors to lead a 12-session photography class for the blind and wanted to know if the young Iturbe could lend a hand.

Her response was skepticism. Teach the blind to shoot photographs?

“That’s crazy,” she remembers thinking. “I knew about photography, but what I didn’t know was how to teach blind people.”

Then, of course, she got on board.

Eyes That Feel

In 2013, Iturbe volunteered as a class assistant and eventually began leading the Mexico City course. It is offered two times each year to about 20 students.

Some have partial vision and no ability to distinguish colors or see things clearly. Others have lost their sight completely and doubt whether they can take photos at all.

Maria Iturbe.

“Many students are skeptical when they start,” Iturbe says. “They say: ‘Why should I take photos if I’m blind?'”

But the point of the class, says Iturbe, is to address these insecurities, and convince people that they can overcome their fears and do something completely visual. And in that sense, teaching a class of blind students isn’t so different from any amateur photography class.

“It’s a psychological process when you start,” Iturbe says. “You say to your students: ‘You’re going to do this activity which no one— including yourself— thinks you can do.'”

What her students eventually learn is that photography isn’t about what the world looks like. It’s like the images that many of her blind students still see when they dream.

“Images are created from within,” she says. “I just help [my students]find their internal compass.”

“Images are created from within,” she says. “I just help [my students]find their internal compass.”

At the beginning of the semester, Iturbe hands out cameras, which are loaned to students for the duration of the course. She then explains the fundamentals to her students, some of whom may never have used a camera before. She teaches her students to shoot by imagining their body as a tripod, centering the camera on their forehead or waist to find an axis on which to shoot.

Photo: Ojos Que Sienten

Shooting Without Sight

But how do her blind students find images to shoot? By relying on their other senses.

“When we go to the street we ask, ‘What do you smell? What do you hear?'” Iturbe says.

If it’s a portrait, students touch their subject. If it’s a landscape, they ask assistants in the class to describe a student’s surroundings before the photographer composes the shot.

“The class is about exploring your creativity by solving problems in different ways,” Iturbe says.

“The class is about exploring your creativity by solving problems in different ways,” Iturbe says.

It’s a message she takes to hear in her own teaching lessons. She often needs to find metaphors for photographic concepts that make sense to people who may not ever have been able to see. To describe the concept of focusing, for example, Iturbe will use the metaphor of a radio dial, which you twist to ‘tune’ in a station. For depth-of-field, she’ll stand in a line with class assistants and ask them to determine who is standing first, second, and third by listening to their voices. Depth of field, she’ll teach, is choosing which voice to focus on.

The approach seems to work. Her students have taken some remarkable photos: a puddle which appears to probe and stretch the viewer’s senses of perception; a portrait of a monkey in a serious pose.

“They’re not perfect shots with every detail,” she says. “They’re shots that you can feel. And they take you to places you’re not used to.”

Photo: Ojos Que Sienten

The Teacher Becomes The Student

To that end, she notes,the classes have had an outsized impact on her own architectural photography, teaching her how to employ her non-visual senses when shooting. Her students have taught her not just to see the photo, “but live the photo.”

She has learned to think about photography without using her eyes.

Now, Iturbe commonly will blindfold herself and herself when she takes a portrait, using her sense of touch alone before taking a shot.

“The connection is different because it takes away just the visual part, and you can see that in the portraits,” she says.

We have so much visual information every day that we stop connecting with the rest of our senses,” Iturbe observes.

Another project inspired by her teaching involves X-raying purses, which results in images that can only be seen in their totality at the end of the shoot

“We have so much visual information every day that we stop connecting with the rest of our senses,” Iturbe observes.

That’s something that teaching Ojos Que Sienten has taught Iturbe. In an age of endless distraction, we may look, but we’re no longer seeing. Thanks to the lessons her students have taught her, Iturbe has become a better photographer.

“It’s changed me a lot,” she says. “I’m now more present, both in the shot and in life.”