Dad holds up the clean magnifying glass. I’m on the floor photographing at weird angles to try and get a decent shot. What I end up with is a caricature of his nose. Usually this would be culled from my collection – I’m not one for keeping unflattering images of people – but it gives me some idea of the distortions he sees.
Dad has macular degeneration and is going blind. While I’ve been staying with my elderly parents, and as a photographer, I’ve been attempting to understand his condition through the use of my camera. This is the final part of my subseries “What do you see dad?”. Part one is here Blind and Yet He Can See.
Problems with Facial Recognition
For many people with macular degeneration, faces become hard to recognise. This creates social awkwardness when friends or family members are unintentionally passed by; and can feel quite offended at being ‘ignored’. It’s been hard for us to accept that Dad no longer recognises us by our faces and, while I’ve been digitising all our family archives, he can no longer look at the photos with us.
Overcoming Visual Lapses
Cues like body size/shape; walk/gait; hairstyle/clothing can be used to overcome some of the visual lapses. Problems arise though, when for example, someone loses weight or changes their hairstyle or the person with macular degeneration is in a crowded room and simply overwhelmed by the extra brain processing needed to keep up with the melee.
In a conversational setting much of communication is done by facial expression. It happens so naturally that most of us don’t even realise our eyes are transmitting extra information to the brain to supplement what we are hearing. No wonder my dad is so often exhausted by people and is preferring not to socialise.
Much closer to home, his visual distortions create problems for such a simple task as shaving – now he has to feel his face ahead of his razor – and he’s more inclined to leave shaving for a few days. This annoys my mother who doesn’t like him looking ’scruffy’.
Blogging Out of this Series
Dad has appreciated my attention and understanding. Between us and my camera we have bonded further. My Mother values the insights into Macular Degeneration that help her cope with the frustrations of his perceived inattention to detail such as not being able to find things in cupboards and losing things in front of his very eyes. I think she understands more why he gets so tired, even when physically he is doing so little nowadays. But Mum also forgets and gets confused by new information because, at the same time as Dad is going blind, her mind is no longer as acute as it was; she is coping with her own health issues and it is so difficult to accept that the man who was capable of doing so much for so long is now frail and needy like he has never been before.
This is where I left my parents in South Africa. It hurts to do so. I want to be around to help but need to return to my own life in New Zealand. This series “What do you see Dad?” means so many things to me but I’m now blogged out. It’s been trippy trying to understand how someone can see clearly into the distance yet be officially blind. Without understanding it’s too easy to assume that the person with Macular Degeneration is just being awkward or using their condition as an excuse not to do things they don’t want to.
Seeing into the Future
I’d like to take this photo documentary project broader and deeper:
- Photograph eye specialists in practise – especially their equipment and the connection with visual acuity
- Get to know others with visual disabilities
- Study and understand facial recognition
- Creatively answer my own questions like ‘what is the minimum detail of a face that one needs to see to be able to recognise it?’
This requires a proper framework; in-depth research; ethical considerations; permissions etc – none of which I’ve much experience with yet. One of my goals for 2020 is therefore to find a mentor (or two) to guide me through some of these hoops so I can present a more thorough Photo-project on Macular Degeneration. In the meantime I have several other creative, documentary and memoir type Photo-projects to work on which I’ll post about in 2020.