After the tripod was set, the photographer checked the angles to ensure the ‘balance’ was good. She then felt the buttons on the camera. Then, she looked into the lens. Camera. Ready. Action!
You may consider this the ordinary routine of a photographer. Yes it is. But, what makes it extraordinary is that Taiwo Lawal, the photographer, is totally blind.
Lawal, 35, felt her way round the tripod to our correspondent and explained with a smile, “At the start, I kept wondering how a blind person could learn photography. I thought it was impossible. But the person who introduced me to it said it was possible. So, I agreed to do it.”
She gave her consent to learn the art of photography two years ago. Now, Lawal takes photographs like someone that is not blind.
She continued: “I’ve learnt a lot about the lens of a camera, the view finder, LCD screen and so many parts of the camera.”
Medical science has stated that blind people tend to show enhanced ability in the other senses. This probably applies to Lawal.
Giving an insight into how she is mastering the art of photography, Lawal said she uses her sense of hearing and touch to take pictures.
She said, “If I want to take a picture, I would go to where the person is, and feel his location; then I would communicate with the person to sense the direction, as the sound of the person tells me where he or she is.
“Also, if I want to take pictures of nature, I first feel the object by touching it, then move back and take the picture. When I touch a flower, for instance, I see the colours in my mind. I can also tell if someone is happy or sad, because I know it would be reflected in the picture.”
Lawal put her skill to use as she took many shots of our correspondent and the surroundings.
“Some time ago in Ikeja, someone expressed doubt on the ability of a blind person to take photographs. Immediately, I took my camera and demonstrated to him,”she said, laughing.
But does she have an idea of the outcome of the shots she takes?
Lawal, answered, “Whenever I take pictures, I know it would be beautiful, because I see them in my mind.”
Before photography found her, Lawal had learnt some few trades which included: bead-making and bag-making. These took her four years.
Her photography has, however, been taking her places. Recently, she won an award at the International Day of Persons Living with Disabilites, which held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
“Lawal is the first blind photographer I’ve ever heard of. She’s an inspiration,” said Mrs. Bitebo Gogo, Executive Director, Keeping It Real Foundation, which organised the event.
Also, last year, Lawal met American Joe McNally, a globally renowned photographer at a photography exhibition.
“When we discussed, he encouraged me to continue with my work. I was happy meeting him, because I never thought I would ever meet such important people. Now, I no longer feel bad because I do not see. If I were not blind, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today,” Lawal said, adding that she wants to pursue a career in photography.
“Taking pictures makes me happy. Also, it has helped me forget my past sorrows, when some people didn’t appreciate me and I endured a lot of insults,” she said.
Things had not always been this good for Lawal. Lawal and her twin sister were born blind. And surviving had been a major challenge.
Her mother got pregnant after she was raped by a man in a village in Ondo State. When the man later found out that the twins were born blind, he absconded.
Taiwo revealed that she didn’t know him or where he was, she only knew the circumstances of her birth.
She said, “I am no longer angry with him. I used to be angry before because he never accepted us as his children.”
Growing up in the village was also harrowing for Lawal. She said she had no clothes and was fed with food that had gone bad.
She said, “We had no clothes to wear, only panties. People treated us badly, and sometimes, they threw stones at us. We were fed five-day-old food. We didn’t have any choice then but to eat it. Now, I can laugh about it because it’s in the past.”
Lawal has also endured ridicule in public places.
This includes falling into a ditch and people walking past her, despite knowing she was blind.
For Emmanuel Effiong-Bright, who discovered Lawal in Oshodi, Lagos, after accepting her request to lead her to the bus park, she is not only an inspiration, she has shown courage in the face of adversity.
“She could have gone begging like others but she overcame all that. Our journey took 25 minutes instead of five minutes. But, it has been one of the best 25 minutes of the last 25 years of my life. I saw a blind person who spoke like someone who could see,” Effiong-Bright recollected.
At birth, doctors had given the twins only six years to live. Her twin sister is now married with two children. “But I don’t want to marry a blind person,” Lawal said, laughing.
Today, through the help of people like Effiong-Bright and her photography instructor, Mr. Seun Akisanmi, Lawal has hope for a bright future.
Akisanmi, who runs the academy (Elophotos) where Lawal takes classes thrice weekly, described teaching her as both challenging and interesting.
He said, “One must be extremely patient. Training her is like two to three times longer than that of a sighted person. But I’m also learning from her. I didn’t know how sharp her other senses were, and she always looks happy. She’s a bright student, and has learnt a lot. There are some settings we can’t teach her but she can use auto-mode. She knows enough to do a mini-session for someone, which is a good start, and she can take good pictures. If I would put the cost of training so far, it would be about N500,000.”
Effiong-Bright, who said street photography, was Lawal’s specialty, called on individuals and organisations to support her so she can fend for herself and her seven-year-old daughter.
“Every week, we give her allowances, but we need more support from individuals and corporate bodies. Also, Lawal’s foster mother, Mrs. Yetunde Adu, has done so much for her and in taking care of her daughter. With more financial support, more can be done for her,” he said.
Years ago, Lawal dropped out of the Pacelli School of the Blind in Primary Three because of lack of funds. Now, she said she would like to go back to school, and also pursue a career in photography.
Although, there are blind photographers in other developed parts of the world, Lawal is the first in Nigeria and Africa, noted Effiong-Bright.
One of them is Pete Eckert, a photographer based in California, US, who started photography only after going completely blind in 1980, a year after Lawal was born. “I’m a very visual person. I just can’t see. Sighted photographers always talk about the difficulty of what they call ‘seeing.’ I tell them ‘If you can’t see, it’s because your vision is getting in the way,’” said Eckert, in a feature by TIME.
Care for the disabled
Lawal’s story also brings to light the challenges faced by people living with disabilities in the country, said Executive Director, Persons with Disabilities Action Network, Betram Ubaka.
Ubaka, who is also a polio survivor, noted that with the right social infrastructure, people living with disabilities can have a better life, as well as discover and harness their potential, just like Lawal.
“They deserve to have good living like every other Nigerian. Unfortunately, we have a system and leadership in the country that is very unserious about the development or care for persons living with disabilities. More than 95 per cent of the 25.5 million Nigerians with disabilities in Nigeria are living in the rural areas,” he said.
Ubaka also pointed out that Nigeria has not done enough in meeting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which among other things, states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind.”
Speaking further, Ubaka said society should embrace people with disabilities and respect their human rights. He said, “There is no pro-active response by the society to accommodate their social needs, such as good education and health-care facilities, even the road networks and public places don’t have structures to accommodate them. There needs to be more care for such persons, and more awareness that living with disability is not inability.”