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It was 1988 when, according to San Antonio photographer and author Michael Nye, the intellectual and emotional seeds that would grow into his book and exhibition My Heart Is Not Blind: On Blindness and Perception were first sown.
He was exhibiting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was asked to talk to a group of blind students about the work.
“The questions were so haunting and powerful,” Nye remembered of the group.
“Why are you a photographer? What do these photographs mean? Is a photograph the same thing as reality? How does anyone understand the world outside themselves? Is perception visual? What’s beautiful that’s nonvisual?”
The experience was so powerful for him that he set to work exploring the blind experience further when he returned to San Antonio. The results were the book and exhibition, which came out early this year, and recognition this month from the National Federation of the Blind.
The book features personal narratives and Nye’s photographic portraits, compiled over the course of seven years, as Nye spent two to four days with each individual profiled. The exhibition, which ran at the Witte Museum from Jan. 5 to March 31, follows suit but includes large prints of the portraits and audio narratives from Nye’s interviews.
It is a body of work that looks to reshape the narrative around blindness and perception in general, by recognizing the true plurality of how people, blind or otherwise, apprehend the world.
“I think when the public thinks of blindness, when they think of it at all, they think of disability and of inability,” Nye said.
“But the experience of blindness is so unique and different for each person, and I think that is revelatory in terms of experience in a larger way.”
“The discrimination and misunderstanding toward the blind community is just unconscionable,” he added.
Nye recently was honored for the work, receiving $15,000 from the National Federation of the Blind as a part of its annual Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards, which spotlight innovators that challenge perceptions and break down boundaries faced by the blind.
He said he plans to “use every penny of the award to promote awareness and to travel this exhibit.”
“There’s so much wisdom in these stories that goes even beyond the experiences of the blind. … Sighted people can learn a lot about themselves and a lot about perception and a lot about what it means to be human,” he said.
Nye believes that “the arts really have a place in terms of illuminating awareness and understanding.”
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Speaking about his feelings on the award, Nye noted that he sees the work as a collaboration between him and all the blind individuals who gave freely of their time and perspectives.
“I am just so lucky I got to sit down with so many people and have deep and substantive conversations about life and philosophy and perception and misunderstanding and discrimination and rage and success,” he said.
In a larger way, Nye feels that My Heart Is Not Blind can have an empathy-building effect.
“In the world we are living in right now there’s such division, politically and otherwise, and I think that if we look for commonalities that would help – instead of stressing differences.”