Photographer, designer and social Innovator Shaun Fynn took a very unusual journey—he set out to visit and document the experience of blind school students in Ahmedabad, India. His motives? A combination of better understanding, alternate consciousness, and raising awareness of blindness overall, and MISSION speaks with him here.
What inspired you to travel to visit blind schools?
The idea was inspired by an old friend of mine, photographer, Tim Hetherington. He had spent eight years in West Africa documenting the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. During his time there he documented a blind school and sufferers of blindness as a result of the wars and lack of medical care. I wanted to continue the spirit of this work and raise awareness for blindness beyond Africa. I am also very interested in how we diagnose, teach and comprehend special needs. In the process of exploring this, I became interested in the idea that I call ‘Pathways’— how to understand the consciousness of people who have impaired vision and how they evolve their channels of perception. I think photography is a very, very powerful tool to try and communicate and understand this aspect of the human condition. More
Well a lot of my work has been based in India and I do spend a lot of time there. Also India is a relatively open country to work in. Blindness, disability, mental illnesses etc. exist in all countries. India is a very open country in terms of allowing the world to access such issues and problems, where in other countries including the United States, such problems and settings might be off limits to documentary makers. India also happens to be the country with the greatest number of blind people. According to the WHO, 285 million people are visually impaired globally, of which 39 million are blind. The WHO goes on to say that among visually impaired people, preventable causes take up 80% of the total. 90% of the worlds visually impaired live in Developing Countries. According to the Times of India, 15 million blind people live in India.
Can you tell us some of the most powerful experiences of your visits?
I was surprised and impressed how dedicated people who work in these institutions are, and who are blind themselves. Blindness requires what we would call ‘alternate’ methods to communicate and impart knowledge and they are evolving their own methods to identify levels of visual impairment and also methods to interface with and use existing technologies. Some of this maybe at a grass roots level but the intent to innovate is there, an intent that could do with support and investment on a wider level. There is also some great work being done by the larger private organizations such the Aravind Eye Hospital who have developed low cost surgical procedures and outreach programs for treatment.
I think the most powerful experience is simply being around people that can’t see you but you can see them. This is a very unusual circumstance because their method of comprehension and perception is different. Some of the blind teachers have never seen the world in the way we see it. The most interesting conversation I had was with Ranchhod Soni, one of the teachers at BPA. He has been blind since birth due to a condition of the optic nerve that is currently incurable. He has never seen the world I have seen. One of the most remarkable things he said was that he now has no desire to have any other reality than the one he knows. He is also no stranger to documentary, some years back he co produced a film along with students from the National Institute of Design called ‘Listening in Shadows’. I could never explain my reality to him in a visual sense and he could not explain his to me so I found that quite profound. I suppose at a certain point, one must become content with their own reality.
How can people get involved or help, if motivated to do so?
The organizations that I did the documentary on accept donations as do many of the private non-profit organizations in India. You can also sponsor a child’s education or even request how your donation be allocated within the school structure. You can also offer your own services in support of the organization or their teaching activities in the case of BPA. Some interesting links are below.
What is your goal?
The purpose of my work in this area is just to create awareness through the power of the photographic medium. Blindness is a huge global problem but cures and solutions for 80% of the visually impaired people exist. We need to build the infrastructure to deliver effective treatments and connect the individuals and professionals who have the desire and knowledge to help.
This documentary is part of a continuing STUDIOFYNN project called ‘Pathways’ which is an ongoing photo documentary project reflecting upon the alternate consciousness of those whose perception and understanding of the world is guided through little understood pathways.
CHECK OUT SHAUN'S STUDIO AT www.studiofynn.com
SHAUN FYNN is an acclaimed designer and photographer with a long history of advising and creating for Fortune 500 companies, NGO’s and startups. Since founding STUDIOFYNN in 1997 he has lived and practiced globally including the UK, Italy the US and India working in the areas of design, design research, design education and photo documentary.