For photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, blindness is something that hits close to home. Her father-in-law’s eyesight started failing, which got her thinking about being blind. This jump-started her series, “Blind“, which portrays blind people sympathetically through photographs. Julia got to know each of her subjects before shooting, listening to their stories and letting them pick the setting they would be shot in. The stories of all those involved with “Blind,” showed Julia how, although they have to live with a tragic disability, her subjects live life to the fullest, despite their setbacks. Julia Fullerton-Batten talked with Resource about her series, “Blind,” telling us how her stunning images were captured, and how the people she photographed effected her life.
How and when did you get started with photography?
My father is a passionate amateur photographer. When we were children he would constantly be snapping us and taking a camera with him wherever he went. He developed and enlarged his B&W film in a makeshift darkroom. It was fascinating to see the results. As a young teenager I started to ‘borrow’ his camera, something that he didn’t always appreciate. He gave me his last film camera and I started my interest in photography in real earnest. With this background, it was natural for me to decide on photography as a career. After spending our childhood in Germany and the USA, we were now living in the UK. I went to college for a couple of years, but my real training resulted from spending five years after graduation as an assistant to London based professional photographers. I entered into competitions and developed a comprehensive portfolio. A German agent noticed my success in one particular competition and signed me up. A couple of months later the agent got me my first commercial project and my career was started.
How did you come up with your Blind series?
After my earlier semi-autobiographical projects on teenage girls, I decided to shoot projects with more social content as I felt that I had a lot to say about less privileged people in our society. My first project of this kind was ‘Unadorned’, a study of the emphasis of modern society’s concentration on the super-slim and ignoring the more overweight person. All of us, on occasion, stop to think how our life could be even better than it is now, but, sometimes we should think also the opposite, how it could be starkly different in a negative sense than how we live presently. At the time, my father-in-law was sadly going blind and it heightened my consciousness of the major differences it could make to a person’s life. I asked myself; how would I cope with losing my sight? How is it for those, who have never seen at all, how do they dream without the background knowledge stored in their memory? I decided to investigate and try to portray the world of the blind sympathetically with my camera.
How did you find your models?
I found my blind models by approaching organizations in the UK supporting the blind (RNIB), through appealing to the friends and relatives of blind people by placing advertisements on the Internet, also with the help of a casting director.
What background work did you do before shooting? Did you learn more about your models? Did you explain your project to them? What went into choosing backgrounds for each person in the series? What went into matching each person with a background?
I researched any and all information on the Internet concerning being blind and how they coped. Of course, I could also discuss the matter with my father- -in-law, especially as he is also affected by the oncoming blindness.
I met each of my models on several occasions before the shoot to hear their stories and to explain the project with them and sound out their own opinions on it. I had already decided to portray my blind models against a background of their own choice, something that had great significance to them, perhaps related to the time when they still had vision, or appreciated by using their other senses. As a part of the project, I also asked them to ‘write’ their stories for me, explaining the circumstances of their affliction, how they coped with it, their ambitions for the future, etc. They wrote their stories in their own words using speech recognition software and Braille keys on their computer keyboard
Was it hard to relate to your models? Looking back, what was your experience like shooting your subjects?
Relating to my models was a very humbling experience. Their stories weighed me down with sorrow at their misfortune. But, at the same time, it was a profoundly uplifting one. Without exception, my models are shining examples of how to continue living with joy and energy even under very difficult circumstances. One thing I realised is that there are many degrees of blindness, and each person is different. And that although they can’t see, their senses of touch, sound and smell are heightened in some form of compensation. I can only admire the courage and fortitude of my blind models at how they handle their lives in such a positive way.
What kind of equipment did you use for Blind?
Hasselblad and a lot of lighting!
On your website you talk a bit about the dichotomy between the extreme sorrow you felt when hearing your subject’s stories, and the uplifting joy you also felt while observing the way these people continue to live their lives with hope and happiness. Did you take this into consideration while shooting? Do you feel your images portray that dichotomy?
My pre-shoot meetings and discussions with my models enabled me to be fully prepared for the emotions of the shoot itself. Excluding their visual impairment blind people are no different than anybody else. They know how to dress stylishly and present themselves in the best light. Without exception they were wonderful models, and, yes, I feel that my images show their spirit of adventure in life. You just need to read their ‘stories’ to appreciate the truth.
What do you hope to convey with Blind? If people take one thing away from your series, what would you like that to be?
I am sad for and frustrated with people who moan about their life, how hard-done-by they are, etc. My blind models trumpet loudly the fact that they have overcome their adversity, live their lives to the full despite some limitations, and continue to plan for a full and happy future. For me this shoot was a really moving and uplifting experience; one that viewers of my images can in some small way share with me.