When we think of someone suffering from an occupational hazard, it’s usually thought of as an unforeseen accident suffered at the workplace. Seldom do we think of someone knowingly choosing a job, career or profession that in time would likely end their chosen vocation by an expected physical abnormality suffered at birth.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly the dilemma that faced Karren Visser when she was just a child knowing that her rare degenerative eye condition would likely get worse as she grew older, and perhaps end forever her passion for photography.
Her parents first became aware of her sight problems when she was five years old and living on a farm in the Western Cape of South Africa.
A giraffe had licked the side of her face while she was sitting on a game reserve and she was unable to see what kind of animal had licked her.
Karren was later diagnosed with degenerative myopia and glaucoma that usually continues to get worse, eventually affecting the other eye.
Recently she was told by physicians to prepare for the possibility of becoming completely blind within the near future.
The diagnosis was actually expected, in that Karren had already lost sight in the damaged eye, and had known all along it was just a matter of time before the other eye would eventually also shut down.
Where there is greater unfamiliarity, I mentally map my surroundings to avoid walking into, touching or knocking over things. Self-Portrait, 2021 © Karren Visser #SightLines #ACESupported #SociallyEngagedPhotography#VisuallyImpaired #AudioDescription #Accessibility #Diversity pic.twitter.com/lPTSrCAcwy
— Karren Visser (@KarrenVisser) August 20, 2021
“I was born myopic. If I close my right eye, my vision is black except for a tiny sliver like a crescent moon. The way I would describe it is that my vision is like a shattered cashew nut. I have patches but with increasingly less usable vision.”
The knowledge that she may soon go blind made her more “determined” to finish a project she is leading, called Seeing in Isolation, which tells the stories of people with visual impairments.
Karren took on the Seeing in Isolation project back in 2019 after being contacted by the community arts organization Multistory, and worked with members of the Sandwell Visually Impaired (SVI) group.
The collection went online on May 6th and features short digital films made up of audio recordings, photographs from family albums, music and animation, to tell the stories of the lives of the contributors.
Karren acknowledged that she was inspired to take on the project, “so that other people could understand better the world we inhabit.”
She explained that living with degenerative myopia and how capturing moments on film gives her a sense of purpose.
In this digital story created as part of #SeeingInIsolation with @KarrenVisser & #SandwellVisuallyImpaired Helen describes how she overcame hurdles to realise her dream of opera singing https://t.co/CefbXUJuEH #AudioDescribed @SCVOSandwell @sandwellcouncil @ace_national pic.twitter.com/osJf1IxNIr
— Multistory (@Multistory) May 24, 2021
“I try to avoid the phrase ‘taking photographs.’ Instead, I say ‘making photographs’ in the hope that I am respecting the privacy of those I wish to photograph. For me photography is also about attempting to see my surroundings and appraise what I am seeing. I visualize what it is I would like to photograph and then I go into a situation with a sense of what is in my mind’s eye and how I would like to convey this.”
“I had an experience in Rwanda, where I observed in a restaurant a mother carrying her daughter with autism who was about 12 years old on her back to calm her. I was told that in Rwanda, it is considered unacceptable that a mother would carry her daughter of that age like a baby. I wished to convey what I felt and saw in the bond between the mother and the daughter. The mother, if you look at the tension in her arms, is pressing the daughter against her. That was the only space that mattered in that moment.”
“For me the motivation behind establishing the online project was that many Sandwell Visually Impaired members were quite isolated. I thought this would be an opportunity for people to share their stories. You will find that none of their stories are about COVID-19. They are about friendship, mental health, the importance of color, working for charities and staying active. There was no ‘Poor me, I’m sitting at home during a pandemic.”
“I learned to cry silently. There were things where I thought ‘That may be me in the future’ or ‘This is really tough going.’ At the same time, there were moments filled with incredible humor.”