The image makers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


One of Tang Lai-ming's more vivid memories is of a family picnic when she was little. After a pleasant day out, she was disappointed when her brother was asked to take a portrait of the family.

'I was very sad because I wanted to take the photo,' she says. 'So my family let me take the first one and I've been taking photos ever since.' Now 12 years old, Lai-ming faces greater challenges than most amateur photographers.

She is visually impaired, and can barely make out basic shapes, and only in very low light. Lai-ming is one of 11 blind and visually impaired students who recently took part in Images in Touch, a groundbreaking photography training programme organised by the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired.

It might seem a pointless exercise for youngsters who can hardly see or not at all to engage in this visual art form.

But programme initiator and co-ordinator K.K. Lam says the classes do not focus on basic photographic techniques such as colour, focus and composition.

Instead, the idea is for students to learn how to use photography to express themselves artistically, and to view the camera as a tool for communication between the world with vision and the world without.

Choi Lok-sze, who is 15 years old and totally blind, has been an enthusiastic participant. She says photography gives her a way to preserve her memories and share experiences with others: 'I can record something when I am young and when I grow up I can show it to my friends and family.'

Lai-ming also thrives on this mode of communication with people who see: 'I think taking photos can help tell people what I'm thinking and feeling. Sometimes I don't know how to say what I'm feeling and I can tell people with a photo.'

She takes this concept further by using her photographs to break down misconceptions about how visually impaired people experience their lives.

Something of a sport fanatic, Lai-ming mainly takes photographs of friends in various sports activities. 'I want to tell [the world] blind people can do lots of sports and that they are happy, and that their lives are so interesting and not so sad.'

Lam says the avenue for communication between the sighted and sightless world is what excites him about the project.

'Photography can be a good entry point for [visually impaired youngsters] to know the world, and for us to know the world they live in as well,' he says.

This month, the public will be able to see for themselves when his students' photography projects go on display at the MTR Community Art Gallery in Central station. The exhibition will move to Admiralty station in August.

Although relatively new to Hong Kong, photography programmes for the blind are increasingly common around the world. A growing number of blind professional photographers, including Gerardo Nigenda and Peter Eckert, have garnered public acclaim.

During the project, Lam paired the students with a disparate group of volunteers. These included photography teachers, professional photographers and artists. Lam encouraged them to form close relationships. The tutors discovered what it was the children were trying to express, and helped them learn to realise their unique vision.

Perhaps the key lesson is that the youngsters learn how not to take pictures randomly, Lam says.

That is not to say the shutterbugs can forget entirely about learning the mechanics of photography.

'For the visually impaired it is relatively easy, but for the totally blind people, it is hard,' Lam says.

If they are fully blind, they often end up covering the lens, for instance. So they must first learn to hold the camera correctly. Then there's the trick matter of focusing the lens on the subject when you can't see what's in front of you. So learning to use the digital camera's autofocus function is crucial.

For nearby objects, students might get a feel of where the items are in relation to their bodies. But they would need help keeping farther objects in the frame.

Although some might regard the project as a pointless exercise, Lam argues that 'art should be available to everyone in the world no matter if they are visually impaired or not'.

Sammual Au Yeung Sheung-yi agrees. 'I hope [the world] will see that some blind people can take photos too,' says the 13-year-old, who has very low vision.

For many visually impaired photographers, the greatest frustration in pursuing this medium lies not in the process of capturing images but in being unable to appreciate the final product.

'It is frustrating, of course, that they can't see their photos. But I think photographs can be a means to reveal themselves for the beholders, people like us,' Lam says.

How the different forms of visual impairment each person has influences their photographic sensibilities makes for compelling viewing. For example, Lok-sze insists on regularity in her photographs, which feature plenty of straight lines, a sharp focus and strictly centred composition.

Her photos mimic her desire as a blind person for an equally well-ordered and strictly oriented world.

Sammual, on the other hand, uses the camera as a way to overcome the limits of his low vision. He has to bring an object right up to his eyes before he can see it. His project, Enlarged World, centres on the camera's zoom function. He uses the camera, in effect, as a magnifying glass.

'I want to zoom in on the subject as closely as I can, because when I look at a photo normally I have to move very close to the picture to see it,' he says. 'But if I zoom in as much as I can, I don't have to move closer and I can just look at it confidently.'

Because Lai-ming can only see in very low light, her photos focus on the interplay between light and shadow. This gives them a dark, atmospheric quality. She takes most of her photos indoors, and often in one of the sport-mad adolescent's favourite places - the school gym.

If Lam has his way, Images in Touch will just be the beginning. He hopes to establish an advanced photography class at Ebenezer for students who are keen shutterbugs. Sammual, Lok-sze and Lai-ming are eager to sign up for the course.

'I want the public to see that these students can do something that is incredible,' Lam says. 'They have their own ideas and feelings. Look at the photos and you can see their true selves.

'Then you, as a human being, can do the same thing. You can share your feelings with everyone, through photographs, through words and through art.

'That's why I wanted to hold this exhibition,' he says.

Photos from the Images in Touch programme are on display at Kai Tin Shopping Centre, 50 Kai Tin Rd, Lam Tin, until Jul 7, and at Oi Tung Shopping Centre, 18 Qi Yin St, Shau Kei Wan, Jul 8-14