My experience as a low vision photographer

My experience as a low vision photographer 

Story: Erin Dickson 

A scan of some paperwork from my eye doctor. Graphic: Erin Dickson

As my highschool photography teacher looked at my first two rolls of developed negatives, I could tell something was wrong. The look of dissapointment on his face as he painstakingly magnified every last detail is something I will never be able to forget. They were entirely out of focus and he made sure to let everyone within earshot know it. After class, I stood in the darkroom for an hour crying.

I was born with a rare genetic eye condition called Autosomal Recessive Ocular Albinism. Basically what this means is that the nerve tissue in my retina didn’t develop correctly, causing reduced pigmentation, vision loss and nystagmus. Unlike Oculocutaneous Albinism, my skin and hair have relatively normal pigmentation while my eyes have very little. Instead of light going into my eye at one fixed point, it goes in at multiple, causing them to shake and me to have problems with focus and depth perception. I also have pretty intense light sensitivity which has seemingly gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. At times, this has made my career choice a challenge.

Photo: Erin Dickson

For most of my life, my vision was something different about me but it was also secondary. I knew I had to wear glasses all the time, not just when I was reading like all the other kids in my grade, and that I was unreasonably bad at sports but besides that, I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I started becoming interested in photography that I became hyperaware of it and genuinely felt like there was something wrong with me. Photography is entirely light based and when your eyes don’t focus on light the same way that other peoples do, there’s going to be some problems. I managed to finish out that year of photo and another one on top of it before I graduated highschool. Once I learned to just go behind my teachers back and use autofocus, I managed to produce work that I’m actually still proud of to this day. I went on to college and ended up graduating with a degree in photojournalism. 

In the past, I always tried to convince people that my vision isn’t something that affects me. I never wanted anyone to think that I was worse off than I actually was or, god forbid, needed any help. Compared to so many other people, I have it easy. But at the end of the day I don’t know what it’s like to see “normally.” When I was in college, I had to work twice as hard to get the same results as my classmates. I have to take double the amount of photos because it’s almost guaranteed that half of them are going to be out of focus. I struggle with fancy digital editing techniques because it’s hard for me to see miniscul differences in things and staring at screens for too long causes migraines. There isn’t a rule book to photography. There are technical skills that you need to know in order to make a camera work but how someone’s pictures turn out is entirely up to the individual. My vision impairment causes me to see the world differently but this is something that I’ve learned to embrace and capture with my camera. 

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