Seeing in Isolation: adapting a socially engaged photography project in lockdown

November 10, 2020

Click below for an audio recorded version of this blog.


“In a very short space of time, blind and partially sighted Sandwell Visually Impaired members overcame the hurdles of working virtually and using technology to do audio recordings, make photographs and share images from their family albums. I am deeply grateful to all of the participants for their time and faith in what I was trying to do.”  Karren Visser, September 2020

Multistory is collaborating with photographer Karren Visser and Sandwell Visually Impaired (SVI) members on a project called ‘Seeing in Isolation’ which aims to challenge traditional ways of seeing. The research and development phase started in July 2019, with Karren collaborating with Sandwell College students, with the support of SVI members. The next phase was creative workshops with community groups, to be led by Karren and visually impaired creative practitioners but we were then plunged into lockdown and the project, in its current form, was put on hold.

How best could we adapt the project in order to support both Karren and the community groups we were working with, without running face-to-face workshops and meetings?

One of our key aims was to stay connected to members of SVI and the local community so Karren produced a series of audio observations to share on social media and with Sandwell Talking News. Themes included social distancing; the surprising positives of walking around in unusually quiet streets; and also some of the challenges that she faced with a visual impairment in a world where it’s hard to get an online shopping slot and touch is to be avoided.

Image 1: Student guides SVI member wearing glasses around the room during a training session run by SVI for Sandwell College Photography Students.

Training session run by SVI for Sandwell College students

As a person with deteriorating sight, Karren finds her other senses filling in the missing pieces but, being homebound in the Covid-19 lockdown, brought new challenges, perspectives and ways of working as a photographer. In response to this, Karren produced a series of self-portraits. She says:

“Much of the work that I’ve been doing during lockdown with a camera and tripod and self-timer relies on an immense amount of preparation and visualisation. This is because of the reduced vision I have and the effect it has on focus, depth perception, sensitivity to light and distortion. I wonder how much I’ll be able to visualise as my sight deteriorates?”

The worry about not being able to work as a photographer is captured in Karren’s Channel 5 News interview.

Karren, a photographer, holds the camera in front of her face to take a self portrait using the reflection of a window, when experimenting in lockdown April 2020

Self-Portrait © Karren Visser, April 2020

As Karren was unable to visit and photograph individuals and hear their stories in person, we decided to work over Zoom and on the phone and this has led to the main outcome of the project changing from a multi-media exhibition to a series of digital stories that will be presented online. Each person is co-producing their digital story and working with us to choose some of their experiences to share through audio and photographs and then we’ll write and record the script together. The digital stories will be presented online in February 2021, along with a series of public engagement events. Karren speaks of the process of gathering stories and how her role has gone beyond that of a photographer.

“In this instance, I was not an impartial listener, gathering stories from the lives of others. I was, and am, immersed. What this experience has taught me is ‘to cry silently’. There were times I heard of situations and personal experiences that I found deeply moving and, in many cases, I saw my younger, present and future self. In an attempt to protect the person who was so generously sharing their stories from my own fears, I would sit quietly till the feeling passed. Nothing can prepare you for the inevitable and, during lockdown, I lost more sight.

Deep down, I have to, need to, believe that once the Coronavirus is in check, my vision will be enough still to return to the project and photograph the visually impaired community of Sandwell with the same clarity and sensitivity that I have had in the past.”

An image of one of the Zoom sessions which led to the creation of the project. The screen is split into 4 squares and 4 women's faces are shown smiling to the backdrop of rooms in their homes

Image of Perm, a member of SVI collaborating to make her digital story via Zoom with Karren, Becky and Jess.

Throughout the project we have continued with meetings to discuss how we can make an engaged outcome for both the sighted and non-sighted community and, as part of this, we have engaged the help of Kirin Saeed, an accessibility consultant, to consider the following.

How can we work on Zoom with care and consideration, making sessions comfortable and inclusive? How can digital videos incorporate audio description in a simple and empathetic way?

We don’t have all the answers yet but collaborating in this way with SVI members and community groups is a great journey to be on.

As the creative workshops were on hold, many of which were to include photography skills, Karren found other ways to keep connected with participants including giving one-to-one tuition and advice to SVI members and Steve, an SVI member and project participant, says:

“I have always had a camera in my hands since the age of 10. But, later on, I started to slow down with photography because of my changing eyesight. In 2018, Karren spoke at the Sandwell Visually Impaired AGM. She was an inspiration to me. Her talk was the reason why I purchased a new camera and started photographing again. Karren has helped me to think how to frame what I can see and to get the most out of my photography.”

The renewed enthusiasm that Steve and others have for photography and engaging in a creative project has inspired Multistory to think carefully about how we can ensure this project has both a short and long-term impact.

Steve, an SVI member is pictured standing with the hand on his camera and tripod in front of a cricket pitch. It's clear the camera has adjustments to help take photographs with a visual impairment.

Steve, an SVI member with his new camera and tripod at Wolverhampton Cricket Club © J Preston, 20 August, 2020

Sandra Troth, Development Worker from SVI says:
“With the onset of Covid and the subsequent lockdown, it was amazing that the project carried on.  Photography is traditionally an art that blind and visually impaired people feel isn’t for them. Then add lockdown and the odds start to look insurmountable.  There’s been challenges along the way that’s for sure but talented and artistic people, creative minds, determination and resilience have worked together to make the project something new, real and very exciting.  It has given our members a real sense of self-worth to know they have really been involved in something exciting that challenges people’s understanding of sight loss.  You don’t need sight to have true vision; that comes from within.  We are looking forward to the final work and are thrilled that we have been part of this evolving project.”

Working on this project has pushed Multistory into new territory and we have been surprised to find meaningful ways to connect with each other whilst at a distance. We thought Zoom would be the hard part but, actually, online working has become essential to day-to-day life so most participants and partners are already working in this way. In the rare cases they weren’t, we’ve provided support in other ways. Adapting the process to create the digital stories together, when we can’t meet face to face, takes care and imagination from all of the people involved and we hope that, if anything, this collaboration can take each person on a bit of an adventure for a couple of hours, away from the personal worries that have been much harder with the backdrop of Coronavirus.

A Multistory blog post written by Becky Sexton in October, 2020 and recorded by Karren Visser.

Thanks to support from Sandwell Council, Arts Council England and SCVO Vision 2030 Community Grant. Throughout the project we have continued with meetings to discuss howe we can make an engaged outcome for both the sighted and none sighted community. As part of this, we have sought the expertise of Sense the charitable organisation supporting people with complex disabilities and visual impaired performer and accessibility consultant Kirin Saeed. Thank you also to photographer Daniel Meadows as we have been inspired by his digital stories, some of which can be found here. We recommend checking them out on the link provided below:

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