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Shooting Blind, How I Mastered Photography After Losing My Sight

After a work-related accident that progressively made him blind, Vladir da Silva discovered an unlikely skill and passion taking pictures that relies on other senses. He tells his story.

Photographer Valdir da Silva
Photographer Valdir da Silva
Valdir da Silva

-Essay-

PORTO ALEGRE — I was born in the state of Rio Grande do Sul but I left my hometown when I started looking for work. When I was 19, I got a job in a shoe factory in the outskirts of Porto Alegre. I worked there for five years. I used to sandpaper the inner soles of shoes, apply glue, and add accessories.

One day, the tip of a drawing pin jabbed my eye. Due to the pain, I whipped my head to the side inadvertently hitting a can that splashed solvent into my eyes.

The ophthalmologist at the company's clinic cleaned the residue and sent me back to work. But all sorts of issues, including infections, soon started to appear. I went to see a different doctor. He told me that, within six months, I would lose my eyesight. I was 24 years old at the time. Being told I would turn blind left me in deep despair.

I went home, where I lived with my sister, and I thought to myself, "I'm going to take my own life. It's over."

In the span of six months, I lost my "window to the soul," as people sometimes describe vision. It was incredibly difficult.

I bought a rope and, as I was tightening it around my neck, a film went through my mind. I understood then that I was being selfish, that I had been thinking about nothing but the pain that I was feeling. I wasn't considering the grief I would cause my family and friends. This thought brought me back to reality. I understood that life would eventually offer me other opportunities.

Now, if somebody asked me whether I'd want to see again, I'd say no — I'm happy the way I am. I am married and I have a 5-year-old daughter, Vitoria. I found happiness within my deficiency. I sought care and I learned braille in eight months. I learned how to get around and how to draw too.

About four years ago, a teacher from a local association for the visually impaired challenged me to learn photography. "A blind man taking pictures?" I asked, incredulous.

"You have other senses," she said.

I bought a simple camera and she gave me tips on how to use it. Since I can't see, I use my other senses, like hearing or touch.

I became passionate about taking pictures of what I cannot see and I've already held several exhibitions. I know where there's a tree by just listening and being attentive to specific sounds. If I can hear a bird sing, if I listen to someone talk, I can more or less assess the distance and height I need to aim for.

I also use my ears when I want to take photographs of the ocean. When waves start to form, they make a distinctive sound. They make another kind of noise when they break. You only have a short time-frame to press the shutter button. That's what I find so wonderful: chasing after that moment — the time after the sun has set as you feel the heat reducing on your face.

I know where there's a tree by just listening.

Of course, sight is an obvious asset for a photographer, but there's a catch: People who can see tend to focus on just that sense.

Lately, I've also been giving motivational lectures to other disabled people. My dream is to buy professional equipment: I want to shoot a documentary about people with disabilities and raise awareness about accessibility. Architectural access isn't enough, we also need human connection.

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