/ SEEING IN ISOLATION

Self Portraits and Audio Recordings by Karren Visser

A woman in a red top stands behind furniture covered by a white sheet in a bright room

Self-Portrait, 2021 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘In the time of the second lockdown, I had to move. This photograph was made shortly after I had decided not to adapt my home for further sight loss, but instead to return to where I had been living for eight years to be nearer my eye care. One thing I have become acutely aware of is how deteriorating sight is like a full-time career in terms of planning, preparation and being one step ahead to hold on to one’s independence. My belongings are under sheets waiting for the next move.’ 

Karren Visser is a photographer. She has degenerative myopia and glaucoma and she experienced further sight loss during lockdown. The initial ‘quiet’ that came from there being fewer people out on the streets meant that she was more aware of how her other senses help her to see. This freedom was short-lived, however, and she began to hide her white cane and soon she retreated from the streets. Whilst working on ‘Seeing in Isolation’, for the first time, she also created self-portraits and audio recordings about her own experience that reflected this sense of increasing isolation. 

Karren says:  

‘These timed self-portraits were a leap into the unknown. As a child I learnt that my Mother would send family portraits home from South Africa with my face scratched out my face with a ballpoint pen. She only wished to see beautiful people. A round-faced girl peering from behind glasses with thick lenses was not a pretty sight. This left an indelible impression on me and has influenced my approach to photographing in an attempt to be sensitive to how people are judged so quickly by their appearance.  

Overnight due to the Coronavirus pandemic it became impossible to travel and the Multistory team, Sandwell Visually Impaired and I had to find ways of working remotely. I decided to turn the gaze on myself to explore my ongoing sight loss. This included showing my night and morning medication ritual, a necessity for monitoring the high eye pressure. I wished to convey how the world draws in and becomes dark, yet it might be a glorious sunny day or a brightly lit room.  

So much of my “seeing” is fragmented and internalised nowadays. Crucially, with sight loss comes a sense of isolation. I have learnt a great deal doing these self-portraits about how I navigate space; how I can’t see the lens but have a sense of the camera’s presence, comforting, like an old friend; and how I try and frame and define what I can see.   

I have been told by people who have lost all functioning sight that visual memory fades without daily references. Days like those when I photographed myself on the golf course may in time turn into sensations. I am training my brain to store what images it can; and in this instance, by using myself I was intent on capturing my facial expressions, body shape, and posture for the future. This way of working is part of a wider exploration for me as to whether people with limited or no sight in time draw on a combination of immediate sensations and the imagined from past experiences.’ 

Gallery

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021. 

‘This was my first attempt at a timed self-portrait. I wanted to give the sense of how I locate things by touch and navigate interior. Many period houses in England have dimly lit interiors. I find it easier to switch off my seeing and rely on my feet and fingers.’ 

A woman in a purple jumper stands at a sink looking out of a window into the night. Water from the tap runs over her right hand, her left rests on a cloth.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘It took me nearly three hours to do this timed self-portrait. I wanted to place myself within at the kitchen sink in the space between the corner of the wall and the window frame to see if I could maximise the reflection and still convey the feeling of running water through my fingertips.’ 

A woman in a pink top stands at an upstairs sash window looking out onto the street. The opposite house is in bright sunlight.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘In the time of the first Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I was aware of the quiet, how few cars passed by in the street. Again, I wished to frame myself in relation to the windowpane, the curtain, scaffolding and a neighbouring house across the road.’ 

A nude woman stands with her back to the camera. Her front and face are reflected in a window against the night sky.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘The pink moon in April 2020 was bright enough for me to utilise the soft light and photograph myself looking out from my loft room at trees beyond. It was in the early hours of the morning and except for the call of an owl there was no sound of human habitation.’ 

A woman in profile wearing dark blue pyjamas sits on the edge of a bed, her head titled back to squeeze a drop from an ampoule into one eye.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘Due to the glaucoma I have to administer eye drops morning and evening to avoid an increase in eye pressure. This was made in the morning and I wanted to include the rainbows from a large crystal I had in the window.’ 

A woman in dark clothes sits at a kitchen table in a dark room, gazing upwards as if lost in thought.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘The pragmatist in me likes to think ahead to ensure I can retain as much of my independence as possible. Part of this self-portrait series was to feel for myself what it may be like in the future to live in the dark more and more.’ 

A woman runs barefoot on a manicured golf course with a look of joy on her face. Sunglasses on a strap bob around her neck.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘The thought of running barefoot on freshly mown grass compelled me to photograph myself with the golf course bunkers. I wanted to feel like I could take off down the hill.

The City council required that the local golf course be open to the public so that people had more space to exercise during the Covid-19 pandemic. I wanted to show the vastness of this place that I often had to myself in the early hours of the morning.’ 

Reflection in a window of a woman holding a camera, obscuring half her face. Behind her is a brightly lit garden.

Self-Portrait, 2020 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘This self-portrait with the garden reflected behind me was an attempt to show the contrast of light and shadow. My eyes struggle to adjust to such starkness and increasingly I find myself photographing without being able to see.’ 

A woman kneels in front of a cream sofa holding out her bifocal glasses to create a strong shadow on the sofa.

Self-Portrait, 2021 © Karren Visser. Seeing in Isolation, produced by Multistory and Karren Visser, 2021.  

‘Bifocal glasses are not ideal for someone like me with patchy sight. I wanted to show in this photograph the way light reflects off the lens as this creates distortion which also messes with depth perception.’ 

Audio Recordings

Walking through a crowd, with a visual impairment

Have you thought about what walking in a large crowd can be like if you are visually impaired? Earlier this year Karren Visser, photographer and white cane user, ran workshops with Sandwell College photography Sandwell Visually Impaired (SVI) members as part of our ongoing collaboration. This GIF is the work of former student Angela Grabowskaa, under the creative direction of Karren Visser.

Lockdown musings: Part 1

As a person with deteriorating sight, Karren has found her other senses are filling in the missing pieces but, being homebound in the Covid-19 lockdown, brings new challenges, perspectives and ways of working. In response to this, Karren has produced a series of photographs and audio observations to share on social media. The audio has been made for Sandwell Talking News, a weekly audio newspaper aimed at people in Sandwell with visual impairments.⁣ ⁣ ‘Musings from Oxford’ was recorded during week 1 of social distancing where Karren talks about some of the surprising positives of walking around in unusually quiet streets and also some of the challenges that she faces with a visual impairment in a world where it’s hard to get an online shopping slot and touch is to be avoided.

Lockdown musings: Part 2

As a person with deteriorating sight, Karren has found her other senses are filling in the missing pieces but, being homebound in the Covid-19 lockdown, brings new challenges, perspectives and ways of working. In response to this, Karren has produced a series of photographs and audio observations to share on social media. The audio has been made for Sandwell Talking News, a weekly audio newspaper aimed at people in Sandwell with visual impairments.⁣

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