The eyes are generally held to be, to use a cliché, the windows to the soul. When we talk to others, their eyes can sometimes reveal more than their words. But what do the eyes of the blind reveal?
Chicago-based photographer Jed Fielding explores this question in Look At Me: Photographs from Mexico City, a series of photographs of blind children in Mexico’s capital. Using silver gelatine prints for this series of photographs, Fielding’s portraits appear natural and unposed. Indeed, Fielding’s briefs to his subjects commonly consisted of nothing but a request to “Look at me.” Almost all of the photographs convey an intimacy between photographer and subject that ultimately helps to establish an emotional bond between the viewer and the children.
Fielding’s technique reflects his thematic concerns on multiple levels. The black-and-white silver gelatine prints emphasize the children’s plight by draining their world of color. The medium’s sensitivity to gradient and tone, however, opens up a depth of detail that, especially in the close-up photographs, confronts the viewer with an unmistakable realism. This realism reinforces Fielding’s intent to put the focus firmly on his subjects not primarily as blind people, but as children.
Fielding’s photographs also explore the children’s use of alternative means of communication. Touch recurs often in shots of children grappling with each other. In a particularly affecting example, two boys use their hands to feel the smiles on each other’s faces. Fielding also explores the children’s voices as a medium of communication, with photographs of kids indulging in soundless screams and of girls whispering secrets in each other’s ears. Fielding alludes to the sensuality of their communication in a photograph of a child’s eye in profile that bears resemblance to Bill Brandt’s series of sensuous, intimate silver gelatine shots of a specific body part—a calf, a face—in profile.
A number of Fielding’s shots explore the notion of the “sightedness” of the blind. In some, the subject’s body and face are squared with the frame, but their gaze seems to be directed elsewhere. In most, however, the subject makes eye contact with the lens and the viewer, and the viewer experiences a paradoxical connection with the subject: there is something dead about the eyes you are looking into, but there is also remarkable depth of expression. The pictures are at once alien and arrestingly intimate.
A particularly poignant sequence of six pictures captures a boy reaching out for Fielding’s lens as he releases the shutter for a short burst. The shadows cast by the boy’s hand as he tries to feel and reach out to Fielding’s camera leave gaps of light in which the viewer can construe the schoolhouse, of trees and of grass, and the boy’s countenance. One realizes that despite the boy’s sightless gaze, he’s still seeing the photographer, but in his own (special) way.
Fielding does a very good job of portraying a world without light in a moving way. In spite of the shadows that fall on the children’s eyes—as they do in one particular portrait—the viewer is coaxed by Fielding to engage the children as emotional beings and in a manner that transcends mere sympathy and removed pity. In Look At Me, Fielding’s photographs bring out a notion of beauty that goes beyond what we perceive with our eyes.