Dudley Hanks captures unseen world through camera lens

Dudley Hanks lost his vision years ago, but that hasn't stopped him from snapping pictures of the world around him.

Hanks looks forward to seeing his pictures one day down the road

Dudley Hanks has been going blind since he was a young boy - but that hasn't stopped him from working as a freelance photographer. Today, he uses touch and sound to frame his photos. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Dudley Hanks lost his vision years ago, but that hasn't stopped him from snapping pictures of the world around him.

Hanks started taking photos of the world around him when he was about 10 years old at summer camp.

"Something about seeing the image form on the paper in the darkroom just kind of caught my attention and I've been in love with it ever since," he says.

Dudley Hanks took this picture of Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly during his studio interview. (Dudley Hanks)
Four years later, he was diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa — a degenerative eye disease that slowly leached his sight, leaving him with a smaller and smaller pinhole of vision over the years.

Today, "blind is probably the best descriptor," he says of his vision.

By the time he was 30, his pinhole vision had advanced to the point it became difficult to look through his camera's viewfinder.

"I started to wonder, 'Well, am I going to have to give this up?'" he says.

Fortunately, Hanks' failing vision coincided with advances in auto-focus technology, leaving him responsible only for framing his shots. He credits his past work in sports photography for helping him learn how to zone focus, pointing the camera at a place where there was sure to be action — eventually — and waiting.

"I would think to myself, 'What's going on here, where's the action going to be?' Basically frame it, focus it, and then wait for something to happen."

Today, he doesn't even bother to look through the lens. Instead, he frames his shots by sound and touch. He also relies on the sound of his lens automatically adjusting to determine how far away his subject is.

Since he is unable to view the final product, he's written software that analyzes his shots.

"I just love the art so much," he says when asked why he still bothers with the camera at all. "Friends and family like to see the stuff I take."

And there's also his prognosis.

"The condition that I have ... is on the verge of being cured," he says. A few years ago, the doctor who diagnosed Hanks called him back to tell him a cure is about 20 years away.

"So all of the pictures I've been taking now, when I do get the cure, I'll be able to go back and take a look at them and see what I've done."

Through the blind photographer's lens

Blowing up Balloon

(Dudley Hanks)

"I could hear the sound of the fan that was used to blow the hot air into the balloon, as well as the sound of numerous excited voices as the people worked to get the balloon ready for take-off," Hanks says.

"I took a series of pictures using a variety of focal lengths and exposures, shot from a few locations as we walked towards the take-off point."

Hockey Shot

(Dudley Hanks)

Hanks, who used to photograph sports while working for the Leduc Representative, took this picture one evening at the Mill Woods Recreation Centre. He'd been out for a walk when the sounds of a game being played drew him to the rink.

To get the shot, he paced off the distance from one side of the boards to the other, found the middle and then took a few more steps to the side to give himself a 45-degree angle to the net. Then he waited until the action came down to his end of the rink.

"I had to take pictures during a few rushes because not all of them resulted in a shot on net, but I was finally rewarded by this fellow doing what I wanted," he says.

Dima and the boy

(Dudley Hanks)

"This is one of my favourite pictures because it typifies what life is like working with a guide dog," say Hanks, who is often asked questions about his dogs and what it's like to rely on them.

One, evening, he and Dima were sitting in a food court when a woman and her young son approached, and asked if they could pet the dog. 

"I had my camera with me, and I asked her if she would mind if I took a picture of Dima and her little fellow from under the table," says Hanks.

"I like the picture because it was taken from an angle that shows what it is like for my guides as they sit waiting for me to do whatever it is I'm doing. It is a snapshot of their life. It also catches the connection of the curious boy who wasn't used to seeing a dog in a shopping mall, with my guide who loved children."

Strained Glass

(Dudley Hanks )

While on a family trip to Victoria, B.C., Hanks and his son Robert toured one of the large cathedrals with cameras in tow. 

Told by a congregation member that the best views of the stained glass were to be had from the chapel upstairs, the pair set up their tripods on the upper level, with Robert (who is sighted) helping align Hanks' shot.

"Robert described the incredible imagery behind the pulpit to me, and I told him what I wanted in each picture, and how I wanted to frame them," says Hanks. 

"From what I've been told, this one does a good job of capturing the rich colours and ambient energy of that visit."

Sunset memory

(Dudley Hanks)

"This picture was taken a few months after I returned home from training with my guide dog, Michener," says Hanks.

"We took Mich to an off-leash area, and I took a few hundred shots as he frolicked and played. I like this shot because it shows the other side of a guide dog's life — the side where the dog isn't hard at work; but, rather, he is just another dog playing with a young human friend."


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