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


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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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