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Young blind photographers use ‘eyes of the heart’

by Shingo Ito*

Yutaka Meijo holds his breath to make sure his camera stays steady, carefully brings the object into focus and waits just a moment before clicking the shutter — relying only on his ears and a hunch.
"I take pictures relying on sound," said the 18-year-old, who lost his sight when he was seven.
"But there's just a feeling to it," Yutaka said, as he took shots of his visually impaired friends playing table tennis, hitting a ping pong ball with a bell inside.
"I press the shutter button and don't hesitate when I think the moment's right. The moment can't be brought back. That's my secret for taking pictures," he says.
Yutaka is among 23 youth photographers at a school for the blind in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, whose pictures are gradually drawing public attention.
"I can measure an object's distance by ear," blind 12-year-old Yuta Ueno said at a Tokyo exhibition of the children's works where captions were written in both braille and traditional script.
"I have no concept at all of colour, but when I take pictures I use my imagination to its fullest," Yuta said, smiling as he made the gesture of shooting a camera.
"I don't care about putting objects into a frame," Ueno said. "Taking pictures is a lot of fun. I especially like the moment I release the shutter. Who dislikes taking pictures? I guess no one does."
The children held cameras for the first time in their lives two and a half years ago when Hiroshi Suga, an award-winning Japanese photographer, gave a lecture at their school.
Suga, who is known for his documentary photographs taken around Asia, described the children as having "eyes of the heart".
"When I told them to hold cameras, at first some of them held cameras back to front or upside down while others covered the lenses with their hands," Suga said.
"But they learnt quite fast and I was really surprised to see how impressive their pictures were. It was beyond the ordinary work of ordinary people."
He gave them cameras with old-fashioned film, not digital models, and told them to take pictures of "whatever you like".
The results included photographs of family, teachers, friends, a street performer, dogs, trains, a castle, flowers and road studs for the blind.

"Nothing in life is limited"

The students worked out their own techniques to make up for their disabilities, such as tapping on the cameras with their fingers to attract the attention of the people they are shooting.
"Their pictures are natural and honest," Suga said, looking at their works in his studio.
"I have repeatedly said pictures should reflect the photographers themselves and their pictures proved what I have said was right."
Suga decided to make the childrens' work public, kicking off an exhibition last year in the port city of Yokohama and publishing two collections of photographs entitled "Kid Photographers".
Exhibitions have taken place across eastern Japan, including Tokyo, drawing big crowds and selling more than 7,000 books.
"Nothing is limited in life," Suga said. "The kids have a disadvantage for sure but they aren't pitiful."
Kanna Yoshida, 14, takes her camera with her whenever she goes out as she says taking photographs allow her to "visualise" memories in her mind.
"I can keep memories of scenes more vividly when I take pictures," said Kanna, who lost her sight as a baby. "I like taking pictures of people, especially children."
One of her pictures at the exhibition shows a young boy apparently gazing at her eyes, not the lens, while he plays in a park in early spring sunshine.
Yuta, the 12-year-old, said: "I like taking pictures of my friends. My mother told me that friends in my pictures are always smiling."
The young photographers, however, do miss at least one thing — appreciating their own work for its own sake.
"I can't see my pictures, of course," said Takahiro Tsurui, 14, who lost his sight four years ago in an accident.
"But taking pictures matters in itself. I can't see them but I can imagine what I take," Takahiro said, touching a braille caption at the exhibition of his picture of a castle.
"I can recall the scenes when I sort them out in my album."
Takahiro says photography has helped him build the confidence to go out and talk to people.
"No matter what job I have in the future, I want to continue taking pictures all my life."