Photo: Alex Dejong

When a brain tumor caused professional photographer Alex Dejong to lose his eyesight three years ago, he turned to gadgets to continue making his art.


Carrying around a Nokia N82 cellphone, Dejong used assistive software to translate sounds into visuals in his mind. After stitching together a mental image of his surroundings, he snapped photos with his Canon and Leica digital cameras.

But Dejong’s blindness is acute: He can only perceive light and dark. Because Dejong could not see his own photographs, he hired an assistant for editing. Until recently, editing was a part of the creative workflow that he thought he’d lost forever. And then to his surprise, Apple’s iPhone 3GS, which launched late June, gave him back the ability to edit photos.


A photo of a cup shot with the iPhone 3GS. Photo: Alex Dejong

 The new iPhone has a feature called VoiceOver, which reads back anything a user places his finger over on the screen: e-mail, web pages, system preferences and so on. Beyond that, photo-editing applications such as CameraBag and Tilt-Shift perform automated editing tasks that blind users like Dejong could not otherwise do on their own.

“With the iPhone and a lot of the photography apps that a lot of people are using, I have my entire workflow, and I can do it in five minutes,” Dejong said. “In this way, the iPhone is a remarkable gift. I’ve had it for three weeks now, and it has really opened up my world, apart from the photography.”


Photo: Alex Dejong

For years, technology companies and small software developers have created digital tools to aid the blind in everyday life. Microsoft Windows, Linux and the Mac operating system each carry tools such as audio screen readers and magnifiers to assist the visually impaired with computer use. And in the hardware arena, some gadgets, such as Dejong’s Nokia N82, specialize in helping the blind. The smartphone supports a vOICe app that analyzes the light detected by the handset’s camera and plays different sounds depending on the brightness, thereby helping the blind make pictures out of sounds.

Dejong said he still uses the Nokia N82 to help him “view” his surroundings, and he admits the iPhone 3GS is more of a “toy camera” compared to his professional DSLR. But he hails the smartphone as the first handset fully accessible to the blind.

“Even if I don’t see the output myself, I still want to have my hand in everything that I do as a photographer,” Dejong said.

Dejong is part of an online community called Blind Photographers, where similarly handicapped shutterbugs share their work and photography tips. Because blindness is variable from person to person, the shooters each develop a different methodology to suit their visual impairment, said Tim O’Brien, a member of the organization and a freelance newspaper photographer for Chapel Hill News.


A horde of pigeons crowd a street outside the New Mosque in Istanbul. Photo: Tim O’Brien

 “My eyesight is not blurry but more like low-resolution,” explained O’Brien, whose condition is called juvenile macular degeneration. “It’s like the difference between looking at an old television and a high-definition television.”


Seen from on top of a building in Istanbul, seagulls flap toward food thrown by restaurant workers. Photo: Tim O’Brien

 Because of his handicap, O’Brien can see much better from his periphery than his center. So when he takes a photo, he first familiarizes himself with his surrounding (walking up and down every aisle in a grocery store, for example) to gather and memorize a visual. He calls it building a map in his head.


O’Brien shot this photo to convey his distorted, blurry vision

After the necessary preparation, O’Brien snaps photos with his Nikon D40X DSLR and applies edits with the image application Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. His photography process, then, is not much different from a non-handicapped shooter. He just takes much longer than most digital shooters — about as long as a photographer using film, he says.

“I can’t tell if the camera is in focus, or any of the details,” O’Brien explained. “I’ll go home and find lots of interesting things that I didn’t know that I had. That’s not dissimilar to how photographers worked in the film days, when they didn’t know what their camera took until they developed film.”

Despite his visual impairment, Jason DeCamillis still primarily shoots with film. His condition is called retinitis pigmentosa: His central vision is good in the daytime, but his peripheral vision is poor, and come nighttime everything goes pitch black. Like O’Brien, DeCamillis spends most of his time preparing his photo shoots: He sweeps across the scene, and his mind tricks him into thinking he can see everything by forming a mental composite image.


A photo of a sunset, shot with the Diana 151, a medium-format film camera. Photo: Jason DeCamillis

 DeCamillis’ camera of choice is the Holga 120WPC, a medium-format pinhole camera, because he feels it’s a fitting form of self-expression. His second favorite camera is the Diana 151, also a medium-format film camera.


Detroit Airport’s colorful underground passage, shot with the Diana 151. Photo: Jason DeCamillis

“The cool part about that Holga is that because it’s a pinhole, it’s sort of similar to how I can tell people how I see,” DeCamillis said. “It looks very similar to what my composite image is in my head. It’s not a realistic view of how I think other people see the world.”


A black-and-white photo of Kidney Pond in Maine, shot with the Holga 120WPC, a medium-format pinhole camera. Photo: Jason DeCamillis

Via Wired