Mexican foundation offers blind photography course

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Rodrigo Telon Yucute focuses on the sound of the voices, raises a camera and snaps off a shot, capturing an image of a couple laughing as they sit on a yellow park bench.

He shows it to the subjects but cannot see it himself. The photographer-in-training has been blind for nearly 30 years.

“When I was young, I met a lot of people, and it always caught my attention how they would take photographs to keep as mementos,” Telon said. “I like to take photographs to capture a moment that I can later share with my family and friends so they can see what my life is like.”

Telon was a 22-year-old guerrilla fighter in his home country of Guatemala when a land mine exploded, ripping apart his left forearm and destroying his eyesight.

After years of rehabilitation, he learned Braille and how to use a cane to get around.

Now 51, Telon is fulfilling his longtime wish of taking photographs.

He is one of 30 visually impaired or blind people learning photography with the help of the Mexico City foundation Ojos Que Sienten, or Eyes That Feel.

Founded five years ago by professional Mexican photographer Gina Badenoch, the foundation teaches the blind to express in photographs how they perceive the world. Her students use hearing, touch, smell and taste to choose their subjects and create their images.

“It helps them feel part of society again. It helps them be seen and be heard again,” she said.

For many of the new photographers, the most rewarding part is having their sighted friends describe the images.

“Being able to share something I made and hear people who are seeing your photograph describe what you created in your mind is something I enjoy tremendously,” said Jose Manuel Pacheco Crispin, a 33-year-old university student who began losing his sight at 16 because of a retinal degenerative disease.

“It has helped me to break barriers and to keep having crazy ideas,” said Pacheco, who recently climbed to the top of Iztaccihuatl, a 17,159-foot volcano near Mexico City.

Photography doesn’t come easy. Beginners often leave out the heads or legs of their subject, but they learn to improve their images. The sun’s warmth helps them know where to place themselves to photograph their subject. They may touch a flower to sense its shape or listen for the wind blowing through leaves to locate a tree.

“My hearing, my smell, all my senses are alert when I’m taking a photograph,” said Jose Antonio Dominguez.

Dominguez, 49, first lost sight in his right eye when he was a teenager because of glaucoma.

Each blind photographer has a project to work on for two months. Dominguez wants to photograph people who help him as he navigates the chaotic streets of Mexico City.

Telon, who lost his parents and two brothers during the civil war in Guatemala, will focus part of his project on an 8-year-old girl who lost her arm and who refuses to wear her artificial limb.

“I want to tell her my story and how I got accustomed to using my artificial arm,” Telon said.

He may also tell her about a daughter he last saw 29 years ago, when she was 6 weeks old.

“When I left to join the guerrilla, she was starting to smile,” Telon said. “That’s a photograph I keep in my mind.”