Photos without sight

The other day I began thinking about a subject that has been in the back of my mind for a long time: blindness. My eyes aren’t all that great, needing strong corrective lenses, and they’re gradually getting worse – one day, at some point in the future, the photography will halt, though this is likely to be far enough away that I’ll have retired from everything else as well.

But there have been plenty of times, long before I was serious about photography, that I’ve wondered about blindness, and how it affects certain perceptions of the world. Some time back, I ran across the challenge to describe color to a blind person, which I like to think I could manage, but the real test isn’t what I think of it, it’s whether a blind person seems to understand the concept, which isn’t an opportunity that has arisen. But I often walk around the place in the dark or with my eyes closed, comfortable with where things are and, if I’m any judge, with a pretty solid concept of spatial relations – I can put my hand directly on most doorknobs, know how many steps it is between the bathroom and bedroom, and so on.

I haven’t made a huge effort to make the site disabled-friendly, partially because I really don’t know what’s optimum, but largely because, as a photography-related site, much of the content is lost without the visual. I have toyed with the idea of images produced as etchings or bas-reliefs, but I suspect this really wouldn’t be much good; a scenic shot represents a visual field, subjects at varying distances that are entirely outside of the experience a sightless person would have.

Which led, herewith, to an exercise. I randomly selected an image from my ‘Scenic/Abstract’ stock folder to attempt to describe in the terms that a blind person might experience. Since you have never seen the image, you can play along.

It’s outdoors. The air is exceptionally still and quiet – no bird noise or barking dogs, no lawnmowers or yard noises, few traffic sounds. The air is also slightly chilly, with a faint hint of humidity, like immediately after a rain. The grass underfoot, however, feels dry and solid, not sodden.

A car approaches, from behind and to the left. It’s going slower than normal, clearly traveling on asphalt. It passes by on the left, but as it recedes into the distance it crosses over towards the right. The sound seems slightly muted – less echo than has been experienced elsewhere. After it passes, the faint turbulence of its passage follows behind, weak enough to indicate, along with the sound, being a small distance from the road. The sound of the car disappears into the distance without distinctive changes in pitch; the car did not turn or stop within hearing distance. No other car passes.

There is no warmth from the sun, and only the faintest of breezes. Close to the right, tiny rustles from both near your feet and high above indicate close trees, and occasionally one creaks slightly in the middle distance – there seems to be a treeline alongside. Identical sounds, fewer and fainter, come from the opposite direction – the trees are either fewer there, or farther away. Given the road sound and the turbulence from the car, they are likely on the far side of the road.

What this highlights, hopefully, is that the non-visual representation has to produce the same ‘sense of place’ that our visual cues provide – but some of the things that strike us visually will not produce the same reaction when described. The interplay of light on the snow of the distant mountain peak, a classic scenic image, has no effect on the blind; the awe that they feel comes from other senses. This is not to say that they cannot get the full effect from being in certain locales; aside from the impossibility to know just what anyone else feels, those with sight have a tendency to rely on it strongly, while those without get more information from their other senses. A blind person on a mountain overlook can feel the cool wind coming out of the valley below, hear the air tearing through the trees in the distance coming from very atypical angles (both above and below,) smell the incredible mix of scents produced by thousands of plants and snow, might even get a sense of unease from the rough rock surfaces underfoot. All of these can be rare or unique, and thus provoke a strong response when encountered.

Shall we try another? Remember, this is just as much an exercise for me as for anyone reading.

The air is cool but not cold, noticeably humid, largely still. No sunlight can be felt. The sound of running, splashing water comes from directly ahead, at least twenty paces off; more sounds of water, these very minor, comes from just off to the right at your feet. There is the sound of the wind in the trees, but it’s moderately distant, well above your head, in marked contrast to the stillness of the surrounding air. There is a faint smell of vegetation, but a sharper smell of wet rocks, with a hint of lichen or fungi. The ground underfoot is rock, mostly smooth, but not finished in any way, faintly uneven and studded with the occasional pebble.

The sound from the splashing water has an echo to it, coming most strongly from the left side, extending almost overhead; the effect is perhaps slightly noticeable to the right, but without distinctive direction. The sound of the wind and the echos do not overlap in the slightest. The occasional birdsong can be heard, but always to the right.

Crouching to feel around your feet, you quickly find water lapping against the rock you’re standing on, in the direction of the splashing sound, but the water itself is smooth and undisturbed, a pool. It becomes clear this is the source of the trickling sound to the right. Behind you, the wind noise is more distinct, no longer over your head but even extending down below your level; birdsong can be heard in all directions that way.

Behind you, above and to the left, voices can be heard approaching, and the odd scuffs of feet on uneven surfaces – perhaps ten or so paces away. The sounds descend as they come closer and the people pass behind, giving you some space; the scuffing continues and the position varies in height, sometimes lower than you are, sometimes higher. Their unevenly spaced footfalls and the widely varying time between steps makes it clear that the surroundings are very uneven. The echo from the left and above is very pronounced with the voices, becoming sharp every time someone speaks a bit louder. They never pass in front of you, and barely even get alongside, moving away to the right.

Now, I cheated a little bit here, perhaps – I didn’t stick with what was immediately apparent in the image, but extended it to the surroundings not visible, trying to replicate the entire sense of place that someone without sight would have. They also would have had more of an idea of terrain from having to get to that location, but now we’re going outside of the immediate impact of the ‘scene’ and into the entire experience of the trip. Should that count?

I’m not going to come this far without including the images for comparison, but I’m not going to insert them in the post to be seen easily; instead, I’ll provide a link. Go ahead and revisit the descriptions again to fix the ideas in your mind, then click here for the image from the first description, and here for the second. Or don’t, if you want the full experience, some of the mystery that remains for those without sight. [I’ll note that I actually rejected one of my random selections from the folder, because it was an abstract of a very close subject and could easily have been determined by feel.]

How close was your impression? Was time of day evident from the cues in the description? Did you notice how much of certain portions were never described, because they would have produced no impact to someone without sight?

And of course, how much did I actually miss? I wasn’t paying particular attention to all of the aspects when taking either of these images, so I attempted to reconstruct what I believe I could have sensed when there. Fog and snow mute sounds in curious ways, but the lack of wind noises during fog is actually indicative of the conditions, since it’s rare otherwise. The cue about the echoes I have indeed experienced, as has nearly everyone; we can tell when a recording is made in a small room with hard walls or floor, and can often tell when someone we’re speaking with on the phone walks into a bathroom or outdoors.

[I have a distinctive memory of horsing around with friends in our barn when I was younger, at night without lights – this was a place I knew intimately, but not quite well enough to know exact distances to certain features. I stepped back, and abruptly my voice echoed directly into my ear on one side; I was only centimeters away from a wooden support column, just shy of smacking my head against it. It was a great reminder that we can pick up more of our surroundings without vision than we often realize.

Now something else I’ll note, while on the subject. Sound travels at roughly 340 meters per second, meaning it takes 0.002938 seconds to travel a meter. When we hear the echo from a small room, it is the sound repeating perhaps just 0.01 seconds after the origin; when I heard the echo from the column, it was an echo well less than 0.0014 seconds later – we can actually distinguish time frames this short by ear. The old style monitors with cathode ray tubes (the bulky ones) and non-flat TVs would redraw their images 60 times a second, with black areas in between. This meant each individual image would last roughly 0.01 seconds (counting black redraw buffers) and few people would notice any flicker or delay at all – our ears are better at timing small delays than our eyes.]

But anyway, all of this is simply an exercise in perspective and assumptions. I will never know what being blind from birth is like – even if I lose my sight entirely, I will always build a visual representation in my mind. And a sightless person will never know what vision is like, and what is drawn from it. This isn’t about limitations, however – it’s about changing a frame of reference, and contemplating how much all of our senses contribute to our perception of environment. There are dramatic landscapes for all of us, but some are very different in nature.