Benjamín Mayer Foulkes
Why would a blind man want to wear transparent eyeglasses? Why would he wish to walk the streets of Paris dressed in the same black hat, cape and red scarf as worn by Aristide Bruant, famously depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec? Why would he want to risk speaking on a radio program about paintings which he has never actually seen? And why would he desire to take photographs?
The name of this man is Evgen Bavcar (‘E-oo-gen Ba-oo-char’), he is an art photographer and he is completely blind. Born in 1946 in a small Slovenian town near Venice, he lost both eyes before he was twelve in two consecutive accidents. Four years later, he lay his hands on a camera for the first time, to take a snapshot of a girl with whom he was in love. As he recalls, ‘The pleasure I felt then resulted from my having robbed and fixed on a film something that did not belong to me. I secretly discovered I could possess something that I could not see’. Bavcar studied History at the University of Ljubljana, and Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Having settled in Paris, he embarked on an academic career and intensified his photographic activities. In 1988 he was named Official Photographer of the City of Light’s Photography Month. Since then his work has been widely exhibited, particularly in Europe. Walter Aue, the acclaimed Berlin poet, considers that, after Niépce, Fox Talbot and Daguerre, Bavcar is ‘the fourth inventor of photography’.
Bavcar’s work addresses the relations between vision, blindness and invisibility. He says, ‘My task is the reunion of the visible and the invisible worlds. Photography allows me to pervert the established method of perception amongst those who see and those who don’t’. He carves out most of his images from the dark of the night with the help of portable lights, the better to control all the visual parameters. ‘Each photo I create must be perfectly ordered in my head before I shoot. I hold the camera to my mouth in order to photograph those I speak to. Autofocus helps me, but I can manage on my own: it is simple, my hands measure the distance and the rest is achieved by the desire for images that inhabits me’. Although he requires assistance to produce his icons (traditionally, icons are representations of the invisible), he is not just an intellectual author, for he also concerns himself with the simplest technical details. Whilst shooting, this philosopher-photographer favors the guidance of children, and he likes to review his results on the basis of various verbal descriptions. He explains: ‘I feel very close to those who don’t consider photography a “slice” of reality, but rather a conceptual structure, a synthetic form of pictorial language, even a suprematist image – like Malevich’s black square. The direction I have taken is closer to that of a photographer such as Man Ray, than to forms such as reportage, which is like shooting an arrow towards a fixed moment’.
Very much in the vein of contemporary art, Bavcar’s production ceaselessly interrogates its own conditions of possibility. It is oriented by what he calls the ‘Third Eye’: the source and ruin of all acts of vision and blindness, the radically invisible element in which the difference between light and darkness first takes place. If Western civilization as a whole can be understood as a furious epic in which three forces, the Eye (epitomized by Plato, Descartes and Hegel), the Shadow (associated with Democritus, Calvin or Rousseau) and the Abyss (addressed by Eckhart, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein) continually wage battle with one another, then the originality of Bavcar’s project lies in its suggestion that, far from remaining simply opposed to the Shadow and being identical to itself, the Eye is the Abyss.
Yet Bavcar is not, as the media would have it, ‘the only blind photographer in the world’. Paco Grande and Flo Fox, based in New York, are both legally blind and are well-recognized photographers. Fox is known for her urban scenes, Grande for his images of Andy Warhol and Jessica Lange. A number of other completely blind photographers are working today in Latin America, Asia and Central Europe: Toun Ishii devotes himself exclusively to photographing Mount Fuji in Japan; Gerardo Nigenda has a growing documentary production on the life of the blind in Mexico; and Daniela Hornickova has cleared the path for future blind photographers by introducing the camera to the blind children of the Jaroslav Jesek boarding school in Prague. Those who are born blind are also able to relate to photography and produce significant images: I know of one whose interest in photography derives from his fascination with the capacity of the image to condense large amounts of information. There must be many more blind photographers active today, and surely the history of photography will yet surprise us with lucid tales of darkrooms and the blind.
As the most accomplished blind photographer yet, Bavcar’s images not only form a personal oeuvre, they also inaugurate an entire genre. His creative act is in itself a work of art. Indeed, Bavcar is a walking and talking trope: ‘sham’ or ‘blunder’ at first, spectacular ‘paradox’ second, the very idea of a blind photographer finally reveals itself as a mere redundancy. It is because blindness is the necessary condition for any photographic inclination. If the seeing are disquieted by the work of the blind photographer, this is simply because he enacts a return of their own repressed blindness. This perhaps explains why blind photographers were omitted from Michel Frizot’s admirable New History of Photography (1994): their inclusion proved unnecessary, seeing that their desire is paradigmatic of the desire of all photographers in general.
The work produced by the blind photographer demonstrates, as Freud and Lacan insist, that the capacities of physical sight and libidinal gaze are quite distinct, that physical and symbolic blindness can in no way be equated, and that the visible and the visual are not to be confused. What are the consequences of such a demonstration? If physical sight is one thing and the desire for images quite another, then what is surprising is not that a blind man should take photographs, but rather our very surprise at this fact. Such a surprise makes it evident that symbolic blindness, in particular that which afflicts those who can see, affects the blind more than their sheer physical condition: ‘insensible’, ‘indiscriminate’, ‘biased’, ‘misjudging’, ‘ignorant’, ‘unwise’, ‘obstinate’, ‘impassive’ and ‘dead drunk’ are frequent synonyms for the word ‘blind’, even though they bear no direct relation to ocular incapacity.
Since the visible and the visual are quite distinct, there is no reason for the blind not to produce images, be it photographic or non-photographic – in particular, since they already consume images. Institutes for the blind therefore can, and should, promote the practice of photography and other visual arts not only for educational, artistic and therapeutic reasons but also for strategic ones. The creation of images renders the blind more ‘visible’ to the seeing, a consideration of no small importance in the symbolic struggle faced by no less than 1% of the world’s population. Conversely, schools of photography, cinema, fine arts and design would be well-advised to establish forms of collaboration with the blind in order make the visual field more intelligible for those who can see. In its illusory limitlessness, the experience of vision is structurally idiotic: the seeing are profoundly blind to their own blindness, and interaction with the physically blind is the natural antidote for this chronic condition. Few experiences are as visually enlightening as the description or composition of pictures for, and with, a blind person.
Freud proposes that blindness is a symbolic substitute for castration. He also suggests that castration is the determining factor in the formation of the subject and in the civilizing process as a whole. If this is so, then the nature of all cultural formations in general can be gauged on the basis of the relation they maintain with blindness and the invisible. The breadth and depth of the aesthetic, critical, educational, psychoanalytical, philosophical, anthropological, historical and political issues mobilized by Bavcar’s work suggests that this indeed is the case. The question then is not what can be said about blindness from various locations of culture, but rather what blindness itself has to say about such locations.
Bavcar’s transparent eyeglasses, and his Bruant-like garments, thus evince his participation in the visual world from which the standard imaginary of the visible tends to exclude him. The usual dark glasses worn by the blind reinforce the identification of their physical blindness with the ruthless clichés of symbolic ‘blindness’. In turn, the spectacles worn by Bavcar cast him in the light of the ‘intellectual’. Not only does his clothing testify to his access to the Tolouse-Lautrec print that remains beyond his sight, it also makes it clear that he can sound out, to the point of humoring them, the glances of the seeing.
As for his discussions of paintings and photographic activity, they are but extensions of the inherent sensual and conceptual knowledge that the blind have of the visual world, if only in the negative. Perhaps the most elegant of all of Bavcar’s gestures aimed at displacing the traditional attributes of ‘blindness’ is the small mirror he wears on his lapel at all times. He knows well that the seeing, women in particular, also demand to be seen, and since he cannot offer them the specular look to which they are accustomed, he wears this looking glass into which they are able to peep now and then, and feel reassured.
The main questions posed by the transition from analog to digital photography can also be considered in relation to blindness. Whilst analog photography tends to think of itself as not being blind, digital photography knows itself to be blind and operates accordingly. Whilst analog photography equates the visual and the visible, digital photography presupposes their distinction. Whilst the referents of analog photography appear to be ocular, digital photography demonstrates that pictorial referents are not merely the objects of sight, but essentially the objects of the gaze. In sum, blind photography is digital photography avant la lettre. Just like digital photography, blind photography does not consist in a simple invention of a new type of picture, but rather in the rediscovery of the classical photographic image.
Benjamín Mayer Foulkes is a psychoanalyst and the founding director of 17, Institute of Critical Studies in Mexico City. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and an MA in Critical Theory from Sussex University. Before founding 17, Mayer Foulkes founded the MA programme in Semiotics at Anahuac University in Mexico City, where he taught from 1995 to 2002. He has also taught at several other universities, such as the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico, the University of Costa Rica, the University of San Luis Potosí, as well as in independent art and creative writing programmes. He has published articles on semiotics, philosophy, art, history and psychoanalysis in Spanish, English, Italian, French and Turkish.