At AVAM, visions by the blind

December 08, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

Tony Deifell spent years achieving the seemingly impossible: teaching photography to blind students.

In April, he published Seeing Beyond Sight, a book of photographs his students took and the stories behind them.

Now, Deifell helps share his students' experiences with the sighted. He hosts workshops where participants are blindfolded and sent into the community with cameras and guides. Today, he comes to the American Visionary Art Museum for two such events, which he said can be enlightening and disarming.

"The whole experience isn't about senses - it's about experiencing the world in a different way," he said.

In today's workshops, participants will be assigned 10 abstract topics on which to take pictures and sent out into the neighborhood. The subjects include something you hate most about yourself, the manifestation of something invisible, something beautiful to you and something you are not allowed to look at.

Participants will each be paired with a nonblindfolded guide, who will help them navigate their surroundings. After about 15 minutes in the field, they will gather back at the museum to share and discuss their photos. Then, the previously blindfolded photographers will switch roles with the guides and head out for more photos. Afterward, the photographs will be uploaded onto a Web site for public display.

In the evening, the museum will host a larger salon with Deifell, where patrons can create a collage while blindfolded and take photos. Some of the photographs taken earlier in the day will be on display.

"It's fun, but hopefully also thought-provoking," Deifell said.

Seeing Beyond Sight, which is subtitled Photographs by Blind Teenagers, originated with a photography class Deifell taught at Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C., in the '90s. His students took emotionally charged self-portraits, landscapes infused with sunlight and shadow, and portraits of their friends.

The photographs surpassed Deifell's expectations and gave the students a source of inspiration, he said. Through the project, they were able to overcome their disabilities in an artistic medium.

"Having this notion you're not going to take `no' from the world and not be pigeonholed for something goes a long way," he said. "It was a piece of their formative experiences."

But Deifell could not find a publisher for the book until recently (Chronicle Books), and did not start hosting workshops until earlier this year.

Around the same time, AVAM received a grant from the National Federation of the Blind, which made today's

workshops possible. The museum is also working to add audio captioning to its exhibits with some of the money, said Felice Cleveland, the museum's education coordinator.

"Maybe somebody who is sighted doesn't really think somebody who is blind has a concept of art or a concept of something that can be beautiful," she said. "I think that's really a misconception."

The photographs in Seeing Beyond Sight caught Cleveland's attention, and the book's message about overcoming adversity helped persuade her to bring Deifell to the museum, she said.

"That spoke very clearly to me," she said. "There isn't just one right answer. There isn't just one way to see things."

Deifell, 39, blindfolded himself one day and walked around his San Francisco neighborhood with a camera. Some people teased him. Others helped him. All the while, he snapped photos.

"Some of the stuff is stuff you would never want to look at, but a lot of it is really fresh," he said. "I would have never thought to take that picture if I had my eyes."

The American Visionary Art Museum hosts free "Seeing Beyond Sight" workshops at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. today and a salon from 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Registration is required for the workshops. Some cameras will be provided, but participants are encouraged to bring their own. The museum is at 800 Key Highway. Call 410-244-1900 or go to For more information about the project, go to

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