British Columbia·Point of View

Blind photographer captures a world she doesn't see

Vancouver-based photographer Cathy Browne shares her perspective and her technique with fellow photographers.

Vancouver-based Cathy Browne shares her perspective and her photos

This photograph of a rock in Vancouver's Sun Yat-Sen Garden is used by blind photographer Cathy Browne as a metaphor for how she sees the world. (Cathy Browne)

"Hi, I'm Cathy. I'm legally blind — and I shoot people."

That's how I often start my standup comedy routine, and while it gets laughs, it does leave people confused, maybe scared. But the truth is, I am a photographer.

Some of you may wonder why photography appeals to someone who has no sight in one eye and 10 per cent in the other.

Well, it's pretty simple — I've loved photography all my life. 

I have many memories of shooting with my little Instamatic camera with those funny square flashcubes and then dropping the film off at the drugstore with anticipation.

Often, I'd be disappointed by the boring shots I got after spending far too much money processing the film. Then digital came along, and with it the freedom to experiment and play and pay more attention to actually telling a story.

This week, I went to Stanley Park with my colleague Jason D'Souza to capture the fall foliage and chat with some fellow photographers who were also after the same experience.

Stanley Park in all its autumn glory. (Cathy Browne)

So, as Jason filmed and I talked shop with the other photogs, I was also able to share some perspectives on exactly how I see and take my photos. 

The best way to describe how I see is by using one of my favourite photos that I took at Vancouver's beautiful Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens. I used a narrow depth of field, leaving the stone "face" clear and everything behind the "eye"' blurry.

That's my world.

I see a fair bit of detail up close and less and less as I move more than a metre or two away from an object.

'Big tree, little bike,' is what Cathy Browne calls this shot, taken at the entrance to Granville Island. (Cathy Browne)

But I use my sense of colour to help set my scenes. And there was no better day to capture the bright yellows and golds, and the blazing reds set against the dark green firs.

We encountered Andy and Eric in the park, two good friends who were both enthusiastically shooting the fall colours, and were blown away when they were told I was a blind photographer. They both shared my love for fall and asked me to take a group photo.

Photographers getting their fall shots in in Stanley Park. (Cathy Browne)

We also met up with Andres, a Columbian living in Vancouver, who was giving his visiting relatives a tour of the park. We discussed how I see in detail, which he found fascinating. Like me, Andres also used colours to set up his shots.

And then there was Matthew from Washington, D.C., who shared an insight about photography that struck a chord with me:

"I have a terrible memory," he said. "And it helps me remember what I've done, where I've been and what I've seen."

A whale caught in action by Cathy Browne before it dips below the surface again near Juneau, Alaska. (Cathy Browne)

Memory came up in all our conversations, and for me, my photography is indeed my memory bank, giving me the opportunity to check out the fine details of the world I don't see. But there are so many other reasons I love photography.

Photography challenges me to take risks, to think bigger and to grow as an artist.

Photography gives me the opportunity to reinforce the message that, despite physical limitations, we should all follow our passions and try, even if we don't always succeed.

Photography makes me happy and sometimes it makes me cry with pure wonder at what I can achieve. 

This photo did just that. It's one of my proudest moments.

Cathy Browne says this shot of an acrobat taken in Vancouver's David Lam Park during a Dîner en Blanc event moves her to tears every time she looks at it. (Cathy Browne)

To hear the complete audio of Cathy Browne and Jason D'Souza in Stanley Park tap the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition

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