Curiosity & the Blind Photographer 3: Henry Butler

Henry Butler. Big Ol’ Kiss. 2005. Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, New Orleans.
Henry Butler. “Big Ol’ Kiss”. 2005. Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, New Orleans.

I present this image as an example of a blind photographer gazing back. The blind person isn’t the object of the gaze, but the active subject doing the gazing. The photographer said of this shot, “I always wanted to photograph Becky because she has a personality that is larger than life.”

When I look at this photo I can see some detail, but some I cannot. One thing I like about it is its ambiguity. I can’t tell whether this larger than life woman is indeed a woman or a man in drag. Either way, something is transgressed here. It clearly says New Orleans to me, and that’s all that really matters. New Orleans has a larger than life personality, too. That’s the New Orleans I love and miss.

Henry Butler is one of my most favorite New Orleans musicians. He’s a composer, recording artist, music educator, and steward of the piano tradition that begins with Jelly Roll Morton and runs through Professor Longhair and James Booker. He also is a blind photographer.

Butler has been taking photographs for more than twenty years. That goes back to the early time of optical cameras with auto focus. It certainly precedes digital cameras. I know of blind people who were experimenting with photography before auto-focus, when “F8 and be there” was prevailing wisdom. Focus is not really the point. Experimenting is the point. Curiosity is the point.

In a video that accompanied his 2005 photo exhibit at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, Butler explained why he began to take pictures:

I was always curious as to why sighted people looked at images and got so focused and intrigued by and enamored with images on paper or on canvas. So I decided I needed more than just an intellectual explanation for what I was either touching or realizing through somebody else’s eyes. I decided maybe I’ll just become a participant in capturing visual images.

From what he says about his process, I think Butler taps sensory skills for photography that are similar to those used in walking with a cane. He judges distances and makes decisions about aiming the camera and framing the shot. He engages his subjects before he shoots. When he says “personality” I think he means the salience of the subject standing before him.

What this image offers is a different way of looking at the social contract implicit in a photograph of another human being. It is completely different from the social contract in Paul Strand’s photo. Strand felt that he had to hide from his subject in order to photograph her. Butler needed to engage his subject in order to know where she stood.

That to me is participatory culture and social media at its most basic level. Blind people have been working in multimedia for years and years before the term was invented. The final point I want to make about blind photographers and participatory culture is this. It is not enough to simply have access to information. It’s not enough to simply consume media. Accessibility now needs to include the ability to create and transform information and media. It is driven by curiosity, and it needs to satisfy that curiosity.

In the interest of time, I reified the conclusion of this talk into a haiku. That was my exit strategy. The haiku reprised a rallying cry in the disability rights movement and the evolving field of disability studies: nothing about us without us.

nothing about us
without us no more hiding
enable engage

MiT5 logoCuriosity & the Blind Photographer: Introduction | 1. Paul Strand | 2. David Seymour | 3. Henry Butler | Complete talk | Follow the blog thread This talk was presented first at MiT5 in April 2007. Then it was titled Re-Imagining Accessibility in Participatory Culture.

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