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TIME TO STOP Notes on Blind Photography and the Images of Gerardo Nigenda1

Text by Francisco Roberto Pérez

My immediate reaction to the astonishment I felt of a blind person photographing was to answer the following question: how does a blind person take a photograph? Briefly that question seemed irrelevant and I was confronted with the impossibility of answering it. It did not entail delving into the relationship between a blind person and a camera.

Soon, other questions came up: where does the desire to see emerge from for a blind person? Where does the need for images come from for a blind person? These questions are accompanied by anxiety: does an image with a blind person in it confront me with my blindness? What am I blind to? How is an image created?

Blind photography allows us to set aside the question regarding photography and leads us to consider gaze and the image (that photography will give us back), to dig into how gaze is constituted (emphasizing the paradox regarding the source of the image). Questions that will not be answered. It’s about delving into the unanswered questions, not about converting a tautology into what is already an aporia.

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Observe and describe the following image:

First patio. CFAB (Álvarez Bravo Photographic Center)

White pillars. The wall has a green vine with purple flowers. The union between the pillars is made of plants and green pots. The plants are mainly cacti. In the background we see Mr. Tito, the guard, and all the way in the back, the main entrance. The floor of the first patio is made of green stone. The shot was made from the back to the front, which is why we see the entrance.

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In “Sight Unseen, International photography by blind artists,Douglas McCulloh lays out two ideas that are the starting point for the rest of his reflections2. The first one is that “blind photographers possess a clearer vision of the world.”

Firstly, what McCulloh does is praise blindness as a way of getting to images, thus the blind person turns into a sort of redeeming figure for the sighted. However, it is a theoretical gimmick: it opposes blindness to sight and the blind to the sighted; it creates and opposition where one of the concepts is more important than the other. Why does blindness allow for a better access to images? To what purity can blindness allude? In that sense, the blind and blindness are turned into ideal romantics of purity and eliminate the possibility of questioning and interrogating ourselves, or taking charge of the anxiety that a blind person’s image creates in us (me).

The second idea is more of a “conceptual framework” that McCulloh proposes, “to analyze the production of images that make up this exhibit.”

A first group of artists builds, maintains and protects their image galleries private and internal; they then use their cameras to bring their inner images to the world of the sighted. (…) A second group deploys their cameras to capture the outside world. As blind people, they operate freely on a selection focused on the visual and self-censorship. (…) The third and smallest group is legally blind; they have a limited or very weak vision. Most photographers see to photograph.

The previous lines allow me to point out the impossibility and challenge we face: when we try to explain how a blind person takes a photograph, we create blindness on blind photography; we shut it down or “translate it” to our terms. McCulloh addresses the relationship between blind photographers and their camera with the world of the sighted, or with the world that privileges the eye and images; in this manner, the amazement fades and returns to normal, it turns tautology into an aporia: how does a blind person see? We can question the first group by asking: does the “inner image” exist until it is “brought” to the outside world? Does the inner image correspond to what us sighted are looking at? In other words, what are the conditions to make an image possible? What makes an image possible? Focusing on the second and third groups, McCulloh explains that they photograph to see or relate to the outside world.  These statements have two corollaries. The first one is that the camera functions as glasses for a blind person: it allows them to see. The second is that, when faced with the loss of sight (which is not the same thing as loss of gaze), a blind photographer substitutes it with another sense. Their photographs are made based on sound, for example. A blind photographer does not photograph with another sense: he doesn’t substitute sight for hearing or touch.

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Every image, as every metaphor, illuminates and blinds simultaneously.

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Observe and describe the following image:

Discovering the smell of tortilla.

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The image cannot be defined in terms of essence, principle, cause, or substance. The image is not told as an essence, a principle or a cause.

The image is told in different ways. Do we see in different ways? Do we narrate in different ways? Do we touch in different ways?

We must abandon “image” to its multiplicity of definitions, but this multiplicity of definitions does not allow for a hierarchy.

Image does not respond to any law, tag or definition but, simultaneously, it abandons itself to each and every one of them.

An image forces us to think, look, touch and narrate… An image is the logic of experience. Why is it an experience? Because it is not (only) an idea: it is an experience of thought.

An image is unpredictable: an image cannot be capture by an idea because thought cannot encompass in an idea the surprise of the image. Looking can only be an experience.

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An image. We are sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for someone. We know the person is close not only because we see him come in, we might not see him; we know he’s close because we hear his footsteps and perceive his smell and because he touches us. We experience his presence and then, we see him…

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Observe and describe the following image:

A window of light can light up the universe.

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My first thought on Gerardo Nigenda’s photographs was that they confronted us with our blindness; they placed us in the same position/condition as that of a blind person. The images of Nigenda combine photography with braille, so I would argue that the blind had access to something that I remained blind to: braille, just as the blind person didn’t have access to the image.  Nigenda – I thought – allowed us to access blindness through an image and feel empathy. This reflection ignored quite a few things.

My second reflection was just as naïve. I thought: Gerardo Nigenda’s photographs are pornographic because they incite us to touch. Plop!

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Side note. I talk of Gerardo Nigenda’s images and not photographs because the latter forms a combination with braille and text – on the card that accompanies the photograph –, which form a unity, an image.

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Once we have created our notion of image, blindness, the experience of blind photographers, prevents giving closure to this notion.

Through his images, Gerardo Nigenda accentuates our blindness to widen our gaze and triggers at least three reflections: on the image, the body and the testimony. In other words, regarding our idea of the image, our experience of looking and our experience of saying/narrating a photograph, a painting… The union of photography, braille and text in Nigenda’s images force us to look at them again, read them again, touch them again, narrate them again.

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Our astonishment at the blind photographer is based on the visible-invisible dichotomy. An image is composed of non-visual and visual elements. The blind don’t see more or have access to a “purer” look. The blind photographers suggest that an image is composed of non-visual elements. Hence, the description of an image by Gerardo Nigenda is not a minor issue, nor is it us touching it. To narrate and touch it are the conditions that allow for the visual part of the photography to exist. In other words, the conditions that make Nigenda’s images possible exist through the ability to recreate or reproduce them narratively, tactilely, and even olfactory.

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What is the gap between the image and the observer? Gerardo Nigenda’s images turn us into the photographs’ subjects, for we must touch them and compare what we can say/narrate from them, with what he has written on the card; we become part of the horizon of Nigenda’s image.

In this manner, Gerardo Nigenda’s images, despite or because they are exhibited in a museum, along with the premise of being touched, recover this fetish character. Photographs have always been a fetish and have been related to touch: in the past, we use to carry them in our wallet, now we have them in our mobile phones in the pocket of our trousers.

[The tactile relationship we can establish with Nigenda’s images was surprising a decade ago, today we relate more and more tactilely with images, by expanding them on the iPad, iPod or digital camera.]

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In the history of art, there is a distinction that considers pornography to act and art to think3. It this distinction maintained? Nigenda’s images incite us to act: to touch the photos and force us to think… and narrate.  To look, narrate, touch an image, emphasizes the image as a representation and reminds us that the image does not replace the experience, and at the same time, it is the experience. It reminds us that touching and narrating are – some of – the conditions that allow for the visual existence of photography.

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Nigenda’s images question us about the superficial aspects of art, the narrative of the piece, the corporeal nature of the spectator and the “regulations” on the sensory answers to art.

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1. In July 2011, the first edition of Diecisiete, teoría crítica, psicoanálisis, acontecimiento (Seventeen, critical theory, psychoanalisis, event) magazine came out, which I jointly manage with Benjamín Mayer Foulkes. That edition is dedicated to the relationships between blindness, image and thought: it includes a set of Evgen Bavcar’s autobiographical texts, the most renown blind photographer in the world who has influenced practically every contemporary blind photographer; three academic essays that celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Louis Braille (the texts were published in France in 2009) that portray blindness or the blind as a paradigmatic figure in the history of philosophy; and lastly, that same first edition of the magazine includes “Sight Unseen, International photography by blind artists,” the catalogue that accompanies an exhibit by the same name and joins the work of the 12 more renown blind photographers in the world according to Douglas McCulloh. Gerardo Nigenda is one of the photographers included in this exhibit.

During the second semester of 2011, I travelled to different states of Mexico to present Diecisiete…, the “Sight Unseen” exhibit, or both. Besides the volume I described in the paragraph above, I have not taken the time to write on the subject.  I have read about blindness and image for a few years; witnessed a conference on the subject where I heard and talked with Evgen Bavcar,;reviewed a book on essays about Bavcar’s first visit to Mexico – I witnessed the second one -; I’ve looked at an enormous quantity of photographs taken by blind people and have been fortunate to hear Joan Trujillo speak of her time with Gerardo Nigenda, turning her into a privileged witness of his work method and good heart. All this time all I have accumulated are sheets of paper, dispersed notes on my diary and jottings on the margins of photographs, photocopies, magazines and books. The invitation from Limulus, Priscila Vanneuville’s in particular, - which I do not know why I didn’t turn down like many others -, has forced me to think that it is time for me to stop, look at my file and, at least, re read and transcribe some of those notes. Nothing more.

I wrote “which I do not know why I didn’t turn down like many others…” and I will not fool the reader: of course I know the reasons why; they are two, but I will not reveal them here.

 

2. The text is available here in Spanish.

 

3. This idea is outlined and developed by Kelly Dennis in Art/Porn: A History of Seeing and Touching published in 2009 by Berg Publishers.

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