Photos by Emanuele Lami
Everything was dark around me. I recognized sounds, shouts and voices. I knew where they came from, but everything was covered by night. Black. Completely. I could imagine a car as I heard its noise or the face of a woman when I heard her voice, but I couldn’t picture her face or the color of the car because I couldn’t see: darkness was all around me. I was terrified, disoriented, motionless, and dipped into all that ink. Suddenly a hand held my elbow.
“I’ll help you get out of here,” said a woman’s voice. “Yes,” I answered weakly. I wanted to tell her I was scared, but the way she held me told that she already knew. But, I thought, whose hand is this? Someone I can trust? Can I trust this hand? Yes, I think so. How terrifying it was to be dropped into this deep nothingness! The day became darker than night; sounds became deafening and chaotic into the flat and endless calm of that night! Unexpectedly, there was a gleam of light. The more I walked, the bigger the light became. I faintly caught sight of some heads. The hand slowly let my elbow go, and I ran to the light without hesitation. How bright it was there! It was so strong! I squinted for a while, and when I reopened my eyes I saw the serious face of my teacher busy checking to see if she had lost some of the students in the darkness we had just escaped.
It was 1992. I was 8 years old and I went with my primary school class to the Rome Convention Center to undergo the experience of blindness. It was Blindness Awareness Week in Italy, and a huge black cube had been erected at the Convention Center. One could go inside it, lead by a blind person, and make their way through a course that simulated the task of crossing the street, a walk across a small bridge, finding your seat in a bar, and so on.
I will carry that experience with me for the rest of my life. At the time I was particularly shocked. I couldn’t sleep for many nights, terrified to wake up blind the next morning. I saw my classmates laughing and playing the day after as if nothing had happened, and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t as scared as me. “It was awful! How could you not be afraid? You could become blind in an instant while you’re playing football!” I would say to them with an expression of superiority, although on inside I envied their calmness. With time and my mum’s snuggle the fear of becoming blind faded, but over the years I sometimes wonder why I was so scared, why I felt so terrified. Maybe now, having become a photographer, I have found in part my explanation…
I was motivated to create a photographic reportage on blind people to personally confront myself with one of the fears of my childhood.
As a photographer, I wanted to have the opportunity to visually describe the lives of blind people, their fears and difficulties, the dangers and challenges they have to cope with.
Through this photographic series, I wanted to investigate the human aspect of this critical handicap, showing the adversity of their daily lives as well as the way they manage complicated situations, and how they personally feel about being blind. I wanted to understand how the simplest tasks such as sitting, walking, or drinking a cup of water are performed, and how they relate themselves to their immediate surrounds without the ability to see.
The reportage “I am blind.” faces the serious social problem of blindness: according to researches of the “International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness” approximately 314 million people worldwide live with low vision and blindness. 90% of them live in developing countries like South Africa – the country my work takes place.
I chose South Africa because of its peculiar social situation: on one side there are people being able to afford all the comforts they need, on the other side there are people living in desperate situations, not being able to afford anything, not even medical assistance.
I spent two months in SA, covering different spaces and people in different economic situations, working especially in the North-East of the country – in the Gauteng province, in Johannesburg and in the Mpumalanga province.
South Africa was specifically of interest to me also because of its rural areas, where I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of basic human nature. Humanity is a primary element in this reportage.
Furthermore I strongly believe that the beauty of documentary photography lies in its ability to represent social problems and obstacles drawn directly from life. For this reason, I was enthusiastic to have the chance to visually report on the lives of blind people in rich and healthy hospitals as well as in poverty-stricken townships of South Africa, a country ridden with many other widely known problems such as the highest number of HIV positive inhabitants in the world.
I felt passionately challenged to describe what the country does to fight against blindness and help those who are already blind, as it is one of the leading causes of suffering in the world.