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Dale Layne repairs a computer at his home in Brooklyn. (All images courtesy of Gaia Squarci)

When Dale Layne was growing up in Guyana, he never imagined he would one day be blind. Once, when walking down a street of the capital, Georgetown, in his early childhood, he felt frightened by a beggar wearing a sign around his neck. “BLIND MAN,” it warned. But around age 6, he began having trouble with his eyes. Thirteen years later, he was diagnosed with glaucoma.

“When you’re losing sight, the world starts to appear fragmented, like through a broken screen. Then you stop understanding where light comes from,” Layne, who now repairs electronics in New York, told Italian photographer Gaia Squarci. Her series Broken Screen poignantly examines the implications of the blind man’s sign, deconstructing what it means to be visually impaired in a sighted world. Ten of its images (including one of Layne) are currently featured in a Photoville exhibition curated by Laurence Cornet, which opened in New York this week and continues until September 28. We spoke with Squarci about the project and how it challenged her understanding of blindness.

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Collin Watt was blinded at age 12 by medicine a doctor prescribed for headaches. In bright light, he can see some colors and shapes.

Laura C. Mallonee: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Gaia Squarci: When I started this project I was still in photography school at ICP (International Center of Photography). Overdosing on images daily, I kept thinking of the way perceptions and psychology are intertwined, and how the lack of one of the senses can affect one’s relationship with the world. That’s how blindness caught my attention.

LCM: Why did you see blindness as an important topic to explore?

GS: The fascination that’s been attached to blindness over the course of history by mythology, art, literature, and now songs and movies does not translate into meaningful interactions and curiosity towards people who are blind. I think this is because that fascination sees blindness as a symbol, not as something that people have to go through.

LCM: It’s an enormous topic. How did you begin?

GS: One of the first questions that came to my mind was how attraction and love develop between two people who have never seen each other. Since childhood we’re continuously bombarded by visual stimulus that tells us what’s likeable and how we should look like in order to be successful. I wanted to know what blind people thought about that.

Watt working out in his backyard. He works as a karate teacher for the visually impaired and also waits tables at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant.

LCM: Where did you find your subjects? 

GS: I didn’t know anyone who was blind at that point, so I walked to Visions, a center for the blind on 23rd street, determined to get to know someone. Of all things, I happened to walk into a lesson of photography for the blind. Ten minutes later, a few blind photographers helped by Mark Andres, a sighted teacher, were taking a picture of me posing for them on a red armchair with a red hat on my head, and, I guess, a puzzled expression.

They shot placing a camera on a tripod, setting off a long exposure in a pitch-black room, and lighting me progressively with flashlights. They delicately touched my face and shoulders to feel what portion of my body they were lighting. During those few minutes when I couldn’t move a muscle, I was amused by the inversion of the roles that I had naively imagined, and I quickly realized that besides my specific “love question” there was a whole universe that I completely ignored, and I could learn a lot from.

I also saw how pretentious my initial ambition had been. With time, later in the project, I got to photograph couples of people who are blind or visually impaired with their kids. Love is so specific though, and so hard to understand that I had to go very slowly on that theme, and it ended up being only one component of my work, so far at least.

Blind and visually impaired visitors to an exhibition at the Whitney Museum last year that allowed them to explore artwork through senses other than sight.

LCM: Can you talk about some other components of the work?

GS: This project has become a way for me to help question our universal needs. It brought me to imagine myself turning blind, forced to reinvent my identity and relationship to the world after years of a sighted life. When filtered through blindness, the core questions of identity, love, work, and independence feel to me even more compelling. 

Rather than constructing linear narratives, I worked on themes ranging between the public and private spheres. Employment world, family life, daily endeavors, and entertainment are the threads behind many of the frames. 

For instance, Dale Layne’s story made me aware of how radically disability laws, support in the private sphere and the awareness of the society around a blind individual can make a difference. When Layne turned blind, his family came to the United States to seek better assistance for him. His memories from his country are tinged with both nostalgia and helplessness, as many disabled people in Guyana live locked in the home of their family, victims of superstition and shame. Dale’s life would have been very different back home.

At his home in Brooklyn, Layne covers his plants with plastic so that he can more easily avoid knocking them over.

LCM: How did the project develop visually?

GS: It took time before the project started in some way to work visually. Perhaps the main problem was that I was very little interested in photographing anything similar to a “day-in-the-life” of a blind person. True, I found it fascinating to get to know how blind people travel, do sport, cook, use computers, and play music, but I felt that once those kinds of images were taken, once the process was explained, there was nothing anymore to be said. Instead I was trying to investigate and imagine what was in people’s minds, in their hearts, and in their senses while they were doing all those things, and that’s unfortunately not especially visual most of the times.

What helped me was photographing daily, unspecific moments. It was all about the person I had in front of me, and what questions he or she awakened in my mind. My role was to address those questions with the photos, not to give an answer on behalf of my subjects.

Alexandra Hobbes was blinded by domestic violence at age 4. Her husband Elijah is also visually impaired. Here, she listens to her television.

LCM: As someone who has sight, what was your relationship like with your subjects?

GS: Broken Screen was, and it keeps being, a collaboration, and it couldn’t have been any other way. After all, I do see, and I would have had very little to say about their condition if they hadn’t opened up with me. Throughout the project, people were very open to my presence with a camera. Everyone asked me to clarify my reason to be there, but once I did, I was accepted. I think that’s true for many situations a photographer faces. Most of the times people just want you to know what you’re doing.

An image from Gaia Squarci’s “Broken Screen” series

LCM: What special considerations did you have to take working with subjects who can’t see you?

GS: There’s always someone who just doesn’t like to be photographed, and I was extra careful to respect people’s right to say no. Allowing someone to photograph you is always an act of trust, even more so if you can’t see the result. Yet, there was very little apprehension on my subject’s end, and when I showed or described some photos it was mostly my own initiative.

While photographing, I was hyperaware of the noise I was making. I kept trying to be discreet, to avoid ruining moments by distracting people with my presence, but at the same time I wanted them to be able to detect my position at every moment, as I didn’t want them to feel like I was sneaking photos by taking advantage of my partial invisibility.

Michael Faillace is a blind employment lawyer. For the past 15 years, he has been swimming at Asphalt Green, a pool on the Upper East Side.

LCM: How did this project impact you personally?

GS: When I was working on this project full-time, I don’t deny being strongly impacted by the fear of losing sight. It’s easy to ignore blindness if it’s not in your life. Hearing all those stories made me feel that it can come for me, as it had for so many people who could see earlier in their lives. This made me more grateful for what I have, but it also made me feel life’s fragility in a subtle way.

Blindness usually crawls quietly in the midst of daily life. Most of the times it’s not caused by violence or danger, and it doesn’t leave striking scars on the body. That’s what can make everyone feel like a potential candidate. Vision loss is a weight people carry discreetly rather than screaming their pain out, and it takes an enormous amount of courage and strength to accept it and live with it. I have the deepest respect for everyone who went through this process.

My fears didn’t disappear and turning blind would be a terrifying, heartbreaking experience, but I suspect that if it happened I would probably be able to find the motivation to get back on my feet, thanks to what the ones I’ve been photographing guided me to see.

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Broken Screen will be on display at Photoville (Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park) through September 28. 

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...