Akira Ida thought he had lost everything when he became blind as a child. However, his life changed when he discovered photography.
“Photography gave me a new purpose in life,” says the tall, attractive 33-year-old as his mother and sister proudly look on.
Ida is one of six winners of the National Photography Exhibition for the Blind (NPEB), which opened Nov. 15 in Shinjuku’s Monolith Atrium, in Tokyo. More than 60 photographs by the blind and partially sighted will be on display there until Nov. 20. The exhibition, which just marked its 26th year, is known to millions of photographers in Japan.
The top winner each year is awarded the “Prince Tomohito Trophy.” A panel of experts – headed by Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, cousin of the Emperor – judges the entries.
Hideaki Kase, the driving force behind the exhibition as Chairman of the Japan Cultural Society, explains how this unique effort in the field of photography by the blind, however improbable, came to be: “first we had auto-focus cameras coming onto the market several decades ago, and with that basic innovation the way opened for blind people to venture into photography.”
But still, he says, something was missing—once having pointed the camera and clicked the shutter, what pictures had they taken? As luck would have it, a Japanese company, Minolta, came with an answer in the early 80s. Engineers came up with a new technology that enables a machine the size of a big copier to convert photographic images that are by definition two-dimensional into 3D Braille-likeness that tells a blind photographer roughly what is there.
The photographer can “see” the previously unknown. In other words, a blind person runs his or her fingertips over the 3D image to know what is there. So the combination of the two developments–universal auto-focus cameras; and access for blind photographers to the Minolta technology – made possible the current exhibition.
It was a young blind man in Sapporo who first believed that Minolta could adapt this same technology for touch. Kase and his friends then tested the idea with several blind people and the theory worked. They were able to operate auto focus cameras along with the new technology. The combination clicked!
“It was a miracle,” says Kase. The blind people who experimented with these 3D prints with auto focus cameras were ecstatic because for the first time, they were able to touch images of horses in motion or mountains in the distance using Braille.
“They sensed the scenes, which was amazing. I’ve been the volunteer chairman of NPEB for 26 years and I’m still not able to really explain why blind people can take such excellent pictures, but they do.”
Kase explains what this meant to one completely blind Japanese person who frequented a snack bar in Tokyo. He had sat down and chatted with the mama-san, the supervisor of the bar, for some five years and got to know her and the two young ladies who worked there. But he was never able to touch their faces because it would have been rude, so he took photos of them with an auto focus camera and had them printed.
“For the first time, he was able to know what the mama-san and the two young ladies looked like,” Kase says.
Since this technology made it possible for blind people to take photographs, Kase and his friends decided to have a contest and exhibition for blind photographers.
Kase says he has always felt a special affinity for the blind and partially impaired.
Helen Keller in Japan
“In 1937 Helen Keller toured Japan,” he said with a flicker of wistfulness in his voice. “She autographed my mother’s birthday book with a pencil and I still have it. So I came under the spell to help the blind.”
For the last 26 years, Kase has also taken part in the exhibition’s selection process and has seen more than 10,000 pictures submitted.
“Every picture represents a happy world, happy scenes,” Kase told Majirox News. “They are all spirited, optimistic and joyful. There hasn’t been a single picture showing the world’s dark side. When you are blind, you look for something bright. We can all learn from these positive attitudes about life.”
This year’s winner, Akio Kajima, a 38-year-old professor at Oberlin University in Tokyo, agrees. Kajima says he can envision what he can’t see and is lead by his imagination.
“I always say to my students that have an impairment that if they try hard, they can accomplish anything, especially with today’s technology.”
More than 10,000 blind people across Japan have entered their photographs over the past 26 years. Contestants have ranged from six-year-olds to octogenarians.
Inspired by photography by the blind, more blind people have ventured out of their houses, with cameras in hand. Many have begun to travel abroad. The pictures exhibited at NPEB every year include scenes from all over the world.
NPEB is sponsored by Olympus, Konica-Minolta, Nikon Imaging Japan, the Republic of San Marino Embassy, Togashi and Hachiyo, a volunteer vender association.
Click on image for photographer’s name