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David. 2015

Postcards From the Black

David is my friend and he is blind. He has taught me untold amounts about photography and its purpose.

This September, it was a great honour to have David’s story featured within the pages of The British Journal of Photography.

There is a list of many, many people to thank, beginning with David and his late mother, Eugene, Shaun Curry and the amazing team at Pixelrights, Julie Graham, Mike Hartley, Justin Leighton, my amazing partner Laura and all of you, for following David’s story, for reading, truly seeing, caring and sharing.

Thank you, all.

Due to space constraints, the full text that was written to accompany the photographs was edited, a slight concession for having such a wonderful opportunity to share David’s story.

Now, I can share the full piece with you.

Postcards From the Black

Lighting split the sky, neon bright, as bright as staring into a noon sun, lumbering behind the explosion of thunder, shaking the block of flats stairwell we were huddled beneath. Then, what seemed to be all the rain of all the clouds in the world broke free of the air currents that held them imprisoned, and fell, free, torrential.

I knew the man beside me, sheltering from this sudden spring storm, I’d seen him around town all my childhood, he was always alone, on the outside of everyone, on the periphery of the community. That storm scent, ozone, electric, our brief conversation, words of farewell as the deluge abated, then, all memory of this meeting evaporated as fast as the sun would dry the soaked streets as we each took separate paths upon our walks home. This was the last time David would ever see my face.

David, at home in Dereham. 2015

Years later, after I’d been loaned my first camera, and began learning to use it, stumbling and searching and finally discovering the path that would lead me to find not only myself, but also the way of life that long form documentary photography eventually became, I met Eugene. Her style standing out, looking like every woman I remember as a child in the 1970’s. We would stop and talk whenever our paths crossed in town, until late in the summer of 2011, when Eugene disappeared.

For months, I would ask the few people I thought might know if all was well. No one knew a thing. No news. No news. Then one afternoon during a casual chat I asked again if anyone had sight or sound of Eugene and was told her son had been involved in an accident and was blinded as a result of the trauma. I was more than shocked.

“… suddenly these two were thrown together in my mind, two seemingly separate figures …”

The little I had learned of Eugene had never included the topic of children and to learn that she was indeed a mother and now involved in this awful tragedy, at 86, dismayed me terribly.

Weeks later, I saw her coming towards me in town. Behind her, holding the belt of her winter coat, was a tall man. Both were braced against the wind. I realised it was Eugene and her son. We spoke and as I learned more, I realised that her son, David, was the figure I had seen around town since I was 12 or 13, was the man I had taken shelter with during that sudden storm, and suddenly these two were thrown together in my mind, two seemingly separate figures now placed together.

David, holding on to his late mothers coat as they walk into town. 2012

David had been very active. Walking, cycling. The summer of 2011, David had been cycling and the bag he was wearing over his shoulder had come loose, entangled in the front wheel of his bicycle and he had been thrown over the handlebars, face-first to the road, breaking his upper jaw and neck in two places. “I was choking on the blood,” he told me.

David was taken to the hospital; bones mended, wounds healed, but the obstruction of a feeding and air tube in his mouth prevented his being able to alert nurses or doctors that his sight had vanished for almost a week after awaking from the coma.

“One of the strangest things is waking up from a dream. In dreams I can still see. I can see everything. I wake and feel I can still see for a time, then the black seeps in and I realise I am awake and in darkness again, where the reality used to be filled with sight, now my dreams are. Where sleep was without light, now that’s my waking life. Everything is upside down. Now being awake is like the dream. My awake nightmare”

Meeting regularly, David and I, in early 2012 began working upon the first installment of an ongoing series of stories about his life with blindness. The challenging new day to day routines, learning routes into town with his stick or following behind his mother, Eugene.

Together, we focussed upon how he was coping with the isolation, depression, the navigation of the local streets where bodiless voices surrounded him, a new world of unseen whispers, as though falling and falling through a snowstorm of disembodied ghosts, the many new terrors and harsh realities of David’s learning to live blinded.

David, 2015

“I’ve only been blind under this current government and I feel like the current regime, really, has not helped my situation, by the way they talk about disabled people, and with their policies. If anything, the way the government talks about the disabled within society, it makes it easier for people to be nasty to us. When you hear on the news, and they are having a go, at disabled people, then usually, there’s a lot more trouble, a lot more hostility, when I go out into town the following morning. It’s not a one time event, every time anything unfavourable is said on the news, the next day, you feel it, hear it, in the words people say and in the way that they say them, that hostility, resentment.”

During the spring and early summer of 2013, and thanks wholly to Mike Hartley who suggested the site, HopeMob was used to raise funds for a SARA scanning device for David. The scanner is a machine that enables a blind person to scan the printed word and convert it to audio, letters, newspapers, bills and books.

“One of the strangest things is waking up from a dream. In dreams I can still see. I can see everything. I wake and feel I can still see for a time, then the black seeps in …” — David

The fundraising proved to be a success, donations and support coming from all over the world, the money raised in four of the allocated 40 days, social media was used as the singular tool to enable the fundraising, the people that use it responsible for the donations.

Then, after a series of falls, David’s mother, Eugene was admitted to Hospital, caught a chest infection, and passed away. Eugene’s passing left a wound, for David, every part as brutal as the loss of his sight. Days, weeks alone, isolation and enforced solitude permeate every waking day and night.

David, eating a meal, alone. 2015

Fear of the outside world took centre stage, fear of bullying, verbal abuse from unseen strangers, as he made his way through the crowded streets and roads into town for food.

“I get very lonely. Sometimes when I go out and have an unpleasant experience, people saying things to me in the street, having a go and saying nasty things, then I’m thankful to get back home and I think to myself, perhaps it’s not such a bad deal after all, staying here, alone, if all I find is trouble when I venture outside. It’s a catch 22, there’s no one having a go at me if I stay here, but if I stay here, I’m always on my own, so then I have to deal with the constant loneliness. I’m holed up here, like an outlaw, if I venture out, I have unseen enemies after me, the weather can be an enemy too. I’m outside of everything, because I’m blind, I can’t be a part of things, so I’m apart from them, I can’t go in anywhere and have a look, I can’t really mix with other blind people, as they may have gone blind in another ways to me, so, I’m outside every group, an outlaw.”

“All I find is trouble when I venture outside. It’s a catch 22, there’s no one having a go at me if I stay here, but if I stay here, I’m always on my own.” — David

One afternoon, after Eugene’s passing, after a visit where we just talked, no photographs, just, being together, the friends we had evolved into being thanks to working long form, I asked David to feel my face, so he could ‘see’ me better, and as he traced my features, sculpting from the skin and bones of me, a mirroring within his imagination, I mentioned to him the storm we had seen together, and he remembered, we remembered together that moment, taking shelter, both watching the rain cascading, the sky above us ablaze with lightning, David could finally see me.

Those early days, after his entering the abyss of blackness, the absence of sight, were a sliver of the emotional dark, the shock, pain, fear, all so desperately amplified by the passing of his mother, Eugene, the sporadic accounts of abuse and bullying in town, as he took his first tentative steps outside, practising walking up and down the terraced street he’s lived upon, for so many years. First, as an active, sighted man, a son, with his mother. Then, blinded, then in that negative space, mourning the loss of Eugene, his sight, a walking ghost, alone, isolated.

David. 2014

Yesterday, in the blistering heat, David invited me to walk with him, upon a new route he has been learning. The cemetery walk, up and out of town, past the graveyard, up, and up to where the houses thin, past the water tower, a mile and a half to the last post box, at the very outer edge, where all signs of the inhabitance of market town yield to the open countryside and fields.

Learning a new route, is, impossibly complicated, perversely daunting. Every step, every surface, is to be memorized, learning a little more every week, perpetually walking those steps within his mind, whilst at home, so they don’t fall from memory, falter, evaporate.

Using his long cane, an analogous radar, sweeping, rhythmically, side to side, as though the tick of a clock, guiding, David reaches out into a world unseen, beating the reeds of the unknown into submission, carving and sculpting a memory path within his mind, and within the real world. Searching for walls, pavements, verges, always following their placement, always mindful of the fast, loud, deadly traffic to his side.

David, using his long cane to navigate streets unseen. 2015

Listening, is so vital. Listening for approaching people, listening at junctions for turning vehicles, freezing like a deer if any engine is audible, waiting, waiting to be aware of any other vehicle following, their sounds overlap, waiting for the all clear that quiet ushers.

Walking with David, we talked, reflected, laughed, talked as friends do, for that’s what we are, now. With each step, the respect, admiration and love, I have for my friend, became more apparent, we, we were walking, each step taking us that little farther from the places, so often harbouring only fear and sorrow, as though you’d never escape them.

“Using his long cane, an analogous radar, sweeping, rhythmically, side to side … David reaches out into a world unseen … carving and sculpting a memory path within his mind, and within the real world.”

It struck me, as we reached the postbox at the end of the outwards journey of our walk, of this journey, that this was both a destination and a flag atop a mountain of challenges that David faced. Many people within our communities, face and endure similar trials and are, in every way, equal to them. Standing at the foot of an impossibly tall mountain, arching back and neck, searching for it’s summit, somewhere above the skirt of clouds that mask it from all eyes reach, from comprehensions reach, and then, climbing.

Climbing, with every step taking you higher, every step, that might bring a slip, a stumble, a fall, every step, that might bring freedom from the fear, walking onwards, upwards, through struggle, sweat, will, the force of a man, to reach that summit, without and within, to endure.

David, after walking to the outskirts of town. 2015

We walked back to David’s house, shared a hug, said our goodbyes until I visit next week, and in the alley way that leads to his house, I could feel, already the tears on my face.

Tears. Tears so far from those shed when Eugene passed, so far from the tears shed when I’d succumb to the real pain, fear witnessed within David’s life. These tears, were tears of joy, pride and happiness, for my friend, whom I’d just walked with, in the summer heat, out of town, out to the trees, into the beloved country, for the first time.

Jim Mortram, 2015

Jim Mortram is carer in his family home, a UK-based photographer and the creator of Small Town Inertia. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.



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