Tammy Ruggles talks about her work as a legally blind photographer
As a creative person with a progressive visual impairment known as RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa), I found ways to keep doing the things I loved.
With reading and writing, it was using a 47-inch computer monitor, magnification programmes, and audiobooks. With art, it was turning to digital pictures I could draw with my computer mouse and see on my huge monitor, or finger painting, which I could do intuitively.
But photography was different. I’d enjoyed it as a hobby while growing up, but my worsening vision due to RP gave me serious reservations about ever pursuing it professionally.
I come from the old school of photography; back when pictures were captured on 35 mm film, and some were developed in dark rooms. Dark rooms were places I couldn’t see in, since I have night blindness along with blurry vision. It was hard to read the settings on a camera. It didn’t make sense to pursue photography on a professional or even artistic level. I’d had to set sketching portraits aside. Wouldn’t photography follow suit?
I wasn’t happy about it, but I learned to be content with taking family photos and back yard snapshots, and then handing the roll of film to a developer in a department store.
But as technology changed the way pictures are captured and point-and-shoot cameras came along (no dark room, no settings to read), I began to wonder if I could try photography again.
The thought seemed ridiculous at first. A legally blind photographer? I was under the impression you had to have good vision to take pictures. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea grew inside of me, like a seed.
I had had four years of high school art, and two to three more of college art, so I brought this and my experience as an artist to photography.
With my particular vision problem, I see best in high contrast, so I decided to concentrate on black and white.
I bought a simple but decent point-and-shoot camera, but I was so afraid to pick it up and call myself a photographer that it sat untouched on my kitchen counter for days. I even thought of sending it back. I worried what people would say or think. Could I even do it? What if the pictures were crooked? What if there was a sun flare on the picture? What if it was washed out? Too dark? Too light? The subject off-center? What if no one liked them? What if it was a terrible idea?
Oddly, it was the positive feedback I’d had from my finger paintings that gave me the final nudge to take my camera out of the box and push the power button.
My finger paintings certainly weren’t perfect. They were more or less impressions or memories of the rural scenery I’d grown up with in Kentucky. I never used reference photos for them, and I couldn’t look at something to paint it. Sometimes I’d used colors I hadn’t intended, and I could barely see the paper I painted on. Yet some of them had been published, and had appeared in a few local art shows.
I realised that my photos didn’t have to be perfect either. I didn’t have to see my camera, and I didn’t have to see my subject well. I could just take my camera on a nature walk, point my camera and shoot, and then transfer the pictures to my computer and view them on my large monitor to see what I’d captured. Maybe a sun flare would be okay. Maybe the off-centre subject was all right.
I may not be able to see if the blurry shape ahead is a house, barn, or a shed – or if there is anything of interest beyond the fence or under a bridge – but my camera can.
This is how I take pictures, and this is how I became a professional photographer after many years of denying myself the possibility.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a legally blind photographer has its challenges. Sometimes I have to have someone accompany me in order to find new subjects or scenery. I delete many more pictures than I keep. I know I overlook many things that would make an interesting picture. And sometimes I rely on others to tell me if a picture is okay. But I don’t worry about the ones I don’t get. I relish the ones I can keep.
When people say, “You’re a pretty good photographer for a legally blind person”, it makes me feel that bringing my secret passion into the light wasn’t a mistake after all. Especially when I think that there could be other visually impaired people out there wondering if they should try it…