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I Can See Things With My Camera That I Can't See Without It

Tammy Ruggles is a legally blind photographer who has a passion for fine-art style photography. We spoke to Tammy about her love for photography and to learn more about the techniques she uses to capture her shots.

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Sunflower

 

For you or I, the process of taking a photo is rather straightforward: hold the camera's viewfinder to our eye, compose the image, tweak the settings and press the shutter button but when you have a progressive blinding disease, this process slowly turns into something that's not quite so simple anymore. 

Photographer Tammy Ruggles was actually born with retinitis pigmentosa which is a progressive blinding disease that deteriorates the retinas over time. The disease also brings night blindness to its sufferers which, for Tammy, meant that until digital photography was a reasonably priced and accessible hobby, taking photos wasn't something she could do as she couldn't work in a darkroom using chemicals to develop photos, nor could she read the settings on a camera to shoot manually. 

"Yes, I took casual family snapshots with a disposable camera, but that wasn't my idea of serious photography," explains Tammy. What Tammy really wanted to do was capture work inspired by great fine-art photographers such as Ansel Adams where mountains and unusually shaped trees were the focus of the shot. With this seemingly out of reach, Tammy turned her focus to other artistic ventures such as writing and sketching until she could no longer see well enough to draw portraits. 

 

Mountain

 

Photography Became A Reality Again

In 2013, even though she was no longer allowed to drive and couldn't work as a social worker, Tammy could purchase a digital compact with its auto modes and capture images again. 

"I kept hearing about these ease of use point-and-shoot digital cameras and I began to wonder if I could do photography (again). No darkroom, no settings, just auto-everything..."

Even though Tammy has this new air of excitement, doubt began to set in as she was afraid of what people may think of a legally blind person pursuing a passion for photography. But, like an itch you can't scratch, the idea of taking photos wouldn't leave Tammy alone and with a little encouragement from her son, she ventured into her own garden, capturing random images just to see what the results would look like. 

Before we carry on with the story, you have to understand that Tammy sees the world as blurry shapes - think out of focus camera view and you'll sort of understand - so unless she's incredibly close to something, it's very hard to make out what it is. However, by capturing the images in her garden with a digital camera and viewing them on a 47-inch monitor, the world became visible and Tammy could suddenly see things she couldn't normally see thanks to her camera. 

"I can see things with my camera that I can't see without it, like it's a second set of eyes," Tammy. 

The Photography Process

As you can imagine, Tammy has to work slightly differently to photographers who have full vision. Instead of pre-visualising or setting up a scene beforehand, she does one of two things: one, she walks around to find something of interest and she gets within inches of it to see what it is, capturing a shot from 3-4 inches away. Or two, she takes photos while riding as a passenger in a car, snapping shots of landscapes that line the road.

"In both cases, I take my camera back home, and transfer the images to my big monitor, where I then choose the ones to keep," says Tammy. "This selection process is the most important one for me because it shows me what I've captured, and I can use my personal sense of aesthetics when choosing the photos. In a way, I curate my own images, keeping the ones with high contrast, minimal composition or pleasing arrangement and deleting the rest. This is where my art education comes in. I took 4 years of art in high school, and close to 3 more in college. This, along with my experience as a sketch artist, helps with my selections."

 

Mountains

 

Black & White Landscapes

You'll find a large quantity of black & white images in Tammy's collection as she sees best in high contrast and as she grew up surrounded by rural scenery, farms, trees, hillsides and flowers are subjects that appear time-and-time again. "I feel very comfortable taking these types of photos, plus with nature shots, I don't have to worry about setting up a scene. The scenes are already there, just waiting for me to capture them," explains Tammy. 

Even though landscapes and nature work best for Tammy, particularly in abstract forms, she doesn't shy away from portraiture work either. Yes, it's more difficult for Tammy but that doesn't mean it's impossible, as she explains: "I love snapping portraits, but I find it more difficult as I don't know if someone is looking at the camera, what kind of expression they have, how they are posing, is the lighting right etc. As a result, when it comes to people pictures, I do prefer candid, spontaneous images." This is particularly true when pets are involved as Tammy believes it 'brings out a dimension of a person's personality not ordinarily found in a formal studio portrait.' 

The only downside to portraiture is that it's not always as forgiving as landscape photography is. Blurry hills and vague shapes translate into abstracts really well so even if Tammy mistakenly captured something, it can often look great: "Sometimes I capture things accidentally, like the corner of a hay bale in the foreground I hadn't seen. It's all right, though, as sometimes the accidents create interesting pictures."

 

" I can't see things in the images that viewers can see. But this makes for interesting dialogue," Tammy. 

 

Horse

 

Even though Tammy loves her nature and landscape work, it's actually a portrait of a horse titled 'Grazing' that's her favourite image. Tammy went with her mum and son to a field not far from where they lived to capture the image. The field happened to be home to a group of wild horses but as Tammy couldn't see them without getting up close, something she didn't want to do, she had to rely on the descriptions from her mother and son. 

"I just stood there quietly with my camera in my hand, snapping through the fence randomly in hopes of getting a few good ones," explains Tammy. 

Not sure of what the horses looked like or how they were standing or what they were doing, Tammy took about 15 pictures then carried her camera home to see what she'd captured. Out of the 15 or so images, she kept just one shot of the type of horse she would have if she had the room. It's not a thoroughbred, and it isn't a racehorse. It's just Tammy's idea of what a beautiful horse should be. 

 

Looking To The Future

From the past we move into the future where Tammy knows that one day, her vision won't be at the level that it is now so she wants to continue to enjoy the art of photography while she still can. 

"Two years isn't a long time, but I've enjoyed it immensely," says Tammy. "I've learnt that photography is exactly as fulfilling as I always dreamed it could be and it satisfies my longing for art. I now have a few hundred images, and I'm happy with the collection I have. My hope is that they'll begin to be invited into exhibits one day."

You can learn more about Tammy Ruggles and view more of her work on Deviant Art.

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Comments


pablophotographer 9 1.7k 386
19 Jul 2015 11:07AM
Well done for raising the issue ephotozine.
I am not aware if Tammy is aware of an old British charity (founded 1968) which promotes photography to visually impaired people. It has a rather old (for the modern standards) name. It is ''Disabled Photographers' Society''.

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