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June 30, 2023


Photography by Doug Winter
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico

As photographers we depend on our eyes and vision to create our photographs, perhaps one of our biggest fears is losing our sight. Today we have the unique opportunity of talking with Doug Winter, a photographer that not only experienced his father’s loss of vision, but now copes with partial visual impairment himself.

Doug Winter is a photographic artist using his unique perspective as a semi-sighted individual to explore the experiences of partial blindness and vision disabilities. Through his innovative and experimental photographic processes, Doug creates captivating works of art that invite spectators to notice the world in a new way.

Doug employs techniques rooted in the analog world. Instead of relying on software filtration or modification, He captures images directly onto the camera's sensor using a modified lens. This approach allows Doug to create distorted, abstract imagery of vibrant colors and emotions.

Doug’s art explores the relationship between degraded eyesight, memory, and personal history. He aims to create an immersive experience encouraging people to engage with shared memories. Doug believes everyone should be able to experience and enjoy art, regardless of their abilities and accessibility. This has become crucial in his art practice. Doug adds descriptive alt text to each image, describing its content, composition, and colors. This helps people who use screen readers or other assistive technologies to understand what the photograph depicts and bridges the gap between experiences and art. By incorporating alt text, QR codes, and large print, he creates art that is more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

“In 2012, I lost partial vision in my right eye due to a rare blood disorder. In the years that followed, I adapted to my impairment and was curious about what other people may be experiencing with their vision loss.

A few years later, my father’s health began to fail, and he developed a total loss of vision in both eyes. My impairment, coupled with my father’s disability, initiated my current project, 'Beyond Sight' , which explores degrees of impaired vision.

The images are created from and inspired by the lived experiences of my father. While caring for my father, Harry, I’d ask him to describe in detail what he saw, measuring if his sight was better or worse, depending on the day. He described the shapes and colors of objects and landscapes in photographic terms and conveyed to me that what he saw was “blurry,” “out of focus,” or “was like a broken camera lens.” We talked about his life, memories of youth, lost love and growing up on a farm with little money. I based this work on our conversations.

Techniques I use are primarily analog in origin: direct digital capture without the aid of software filtration or software modification. The camera lens I used was modified by taking it apart and reassembling the elements incorrectly, removing the clear focused vision from the lens, distorting the shapes and colors of the objects I photograph. The resulting imagery pushes formal objects into a range of emotions and colors, exploring the connection degraded eyesight has to memory, color contours, and light and how they collectively comprise a vocabulary of personal reality and history. Simplified abstract forms break down visual barriers and allow a broader audience to appreciate the meditative act of experiencing art.

My curiosity and fascination (interests) with photography is the interplay between intention and chance, and they often lead me to explore the unexpected and the unplanned. I relish the beauty of accidents and surprises in photography. Through this discovery and investigation, I construct inventive and thoughtful works. Using light, glass, and time, I strive to capture the world in a unique way that communicates the spectator's emotions and experiences.

I use the camera to visually express my innermost thoughts and experiences as an artist, always keeping accessibility features in mind. By focusing on color and shape instead of representational imagery, I attempt to create a pathway for spectators to tap into their memories and experiences.

The camera is not just a tool for documentation; it is a conceptual device that offers a unique perspective to all. By prioritizing non-representational or abstract elements such as color and shape, I aim to create visual experiences that are both meaningful and engaging for everyone. By incorporating non-visual elements in my artwork, I ensure that individuals with physical limitations can participate and engage in the creative process.”

Projects like Doug’s help illuminate a world that most of us think of as darkness, exposing a new reality. A world of color and light. He has embraced the vision impaired community making art and photography accessible to all. We asked Doug to elaborate on some questions we had, giving us more knowledge to understand and support their meaningful work.

“I believe that art should be accessible to all, and using alternative methods can help foster a sense of compassion and inclusivity. Through my photography, I hope to inspire others to 'see' the world in a new and exciting way and to create works that are accessible, meaningful, and impactful for all.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Doug, thank you for your extraordinary photographic essay. It is a generous invitation revealing your personal journey, enlightening us with a glimpse into what macular degeneration and ocular impairment is like from your own eyes, and through the eyes of your father. You have allowed us to visualize what blindness or partial blindness is like through your brilliant visual storytelling. We look forward to learning a bit more about you.

DOUG WINTER: Thank you for your appreciation of my work. I'm so thankful for this opportunity. I value your interest and support in recognizing the significance of artistic expression in the photographic community.

TPL: What was the first camera you ever held in your hand, brought to eye, and released a shutter on that became your tool for personal expression?

DW: I was exposed to photography early on as cameras and the family snapshot carried immense value in our household. My grandmother captured family picnics, birthdays, holidays, and parades with her little Kodak box camera. A small closet nestled in the corner of her kitchen housed her small darkroom. As a young person, this mysterious room drew me in, with bits of red light escaping under the door, reflecting off the hardwood floor, whispering to me of the unknown. When it was safe, she invited me in, and I stood atop a chair, my young eyes transfixed on her. I watched as she deftly developed the film she had just meticulously captured with her humble box camera. As I grew older, I began to draw and paint, and time with my grandmother and her creative spirit directed my eventual life path.

On my sixteenth birthday, a family member handed me a small, colorfully wrapped package. Anticipation coursed through me as I ripped through paper, tape and bow, unveiling the first camera to call my own - a 35mm Pentax ME Super. Holding the slender metal and glass machine, I examined the camera's lens, knobs, and dials, marveling at the craftsmanship and attention to detail. I noted its delicate stature, dwarfed by its creative possibilities. An instrument that soon became an extension of myself, embarking on a boundless odyssey.

TPL: Who was your first influencer, in this new way of engaging and defining the world around you? Is there a profound moment you shared that has stayed with you until today? Would you mind sharing that with us?

DW: Several moments and influential figures have left their mark. Among them, the Starn Twins, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince are the initial sparks that ignited my artistic sensibilities. Through their captivating works, they opened the doors to new perspectives and ways of expression, shaping the trajectory of my creative evolution.

During that formative period, a remarkable librarian at the art school I worked became an invaluable ally. With unwavering support, he curated books that expanded my artistic horizons, fostering a vibrant exchange of ideas. Our shared passion for zines further deepened our connection, amplifying the impact of our relationship.

My dear friend Tod Kapke emerged as an exceptional photography artistic force. His artistry and vision left an indelible mark on my creative journey. Though it may remain invisible to others, his influence continues to resonate within the core of my artistic expression.

However, my profound connection with my partner Kathryn Mayo ushered in a pivotal turning point. Her presence, guidance, and unwavering support triggered my foray into photographic art. Through her, introducing me to many influential female artists and photographers graced my consciousness, forever altering how I perceive and create art and see a world without a male gaze.

Among these luminaries, Nan Goldin's masterpiece, 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency', stands as an unrivaled pinnacle of photographic art. Its unconventional presentation, emotional depth and raw authenticity have become a constant refrain within my mind, echoing with each passing day.

In the developing path of my artistic journey, these encounters and influences converge, enabling a narrative of growth, inspiration, and deep connection. Through the chemistry of kindness and compassion, these encounters (influencers) have shaped my art and perspective on the world, allowing me to navigate the ever-evolving terrain of creative exploration with a sense of purpose and profound gratitude.

TPL: Your colors evoke emotion, replacing the details that photography so intricately defines, with the illumination of light in a blinded eye. As you experienced your father’s loss of eyesight, explain how you found light in what most consider darkness.

DW: I found myself confronted with my father's affliction; a result of a lens replacement surgery gone awry. His vision spun into chaos due to an eye infection that impeded the healing process, leaving his sight forever out of focus.

I found comfort and purpose in exploring color, a motivation ignited by conversations with my father about his altered perception. We would embark on a daily ritual prompted by his eye surgeon's request to gauge changes in his vision. These discussions became a touchstone, a gateway to understanding the world as he experienced it, shaped by vibrant or dullish hues and unstructured shapes that danced within his lived memories.

Through the intimacy of these conversations and many others, my photographic expression took flight. An embodiment of empathy and compassion began to form a deep connection with my father's altered reality. For the first time in my life, we held a shared experience. The abstractions and colors I weave within my work serve as a conduit, bridging the gap between his fragmented sight and my semi-sighted perception of the world. They embody a shared language, a testament to the power of visual communication and the natural ability of colors to evoke emotional resonance and personal history.

Within photography, colors possess a transformative strength, capable of stirring emotions that transcend the accurate details often associated with this art form. They can replace the intricately represented facets of a captured image, illuminating the recesses of a blinded eye. Within this context, I discovered a glimmer of light in the depths of darkness, where sight withers and shadows loom. Through my father's struggle and my own, I embraced a relentless determination to uncover the beauty within the seemingly obscured and unveil the unseen narratives beneath the surface of visual impairment.

My photographic journey took shape through the interplay between a father's impaired sight and a longing for connection with him that was previously unattainable. This empathetic lens attempts to bridge the gaps between our divergent experiences, honoring the essence of my father's vision while unearthing the hidden stories that reside within my affliction and artistic vision. Through the language of colors and the gentle caress of light, I seek to ingrain my work with a palpable tenderness for shared experiences and the energy to illuminate and romanticize even the plunging states of our human condition.

TPL: When you experienced your own sight impairment, did making these valuable connections with your father help you cope with your own partial blindness with more understanding? Is this why you have worked so hard to support sight impaired individuals to give them hope and a new perspective?

DW: Battling a rare blood disorder and enduring the stroke that stole fragments of my vision, a profound emptiness settled inside me. Anger swallowed me, marking my days in darkness as I traveled the punishing path of my treatment, longing to escape from the complexity and pain.

In hindsight, when I step back and reflect, I can see the connections that have shaped my current life. It was challenging to recognize the significance and interaction of my experiences during that moment. But as I pause and look back, patterns emerge, and connections become more evident.

My transformation stemmed from the slow deterioration I witnessed in my father as he languished in his wheelchair, blind, his ailing health forcing him into a treatment center and reduced to a mere shell of the man he once was, stationed in a wheelchair, hunched over at the edge of the nurse's desk.

When visiting him, our conversations spanned through the colors and shapes in his institutional room and dining hall, where personal narratives bounced back and forth. Feeding my father during our shared meals, we would linger on stories of young love and growing up with little money, his voice softening as he spoke of the innocence that once filled his heart. A familiar stranger emerged, a reflection of myself, a reminder that our shared humanity exceeds the limitations that separate us and connect our collective hopes and dreams. Through time and consideration, I arrived at a transformative realization: my visual impairment had a purpose, a role to play in shaping my existence. When others encounter me and remark, “You don't appear visually impaired,” their observation rings true. However, just as my ADHD and autism remain hidden, invisible disabilities are still disabilities, their presence undeniable even when hidden from casual perception.

Since my father's death, the quest for understanding accessibility became my obsession. By leveling the sighted playing field by altering photographs, using QR codes, image descriptions, alt-text, and audio descriptions, I aspire to illuminate the importance of equity in visual art.

Today as I write this text, I am fortunate to possess the knowledge of artistry as a medium for my expression. Navigating a world that thrives on inclusivity, I'm working to dismantle barriers with accessibility and amplify the voices of those with invisible disabilities.

I possess the gift of altered vision, an uncommon lens through which I perceive the world.

TPL: How has this project changed your idea of photography? How will it influence how you move forward with other projects?

DW: Through this project, my perception of photography has experienced a profound transformation. I am increasingly disillusioned with the confines of traditional photographic rules, harboring a deep dislike towards their restrictive qualities. My decision to eliminate their influence from my work knows no bounds. In my eyes, cameras and their accompanying equipment no longer hold the status of necessities. Instead, this venture has propelled me beyond photography, steering me into the realm of a photographic artist. I employ the camera as a pivotal element within larger artistic projects, viewing it as a stepping stone toward realizing my creative vision.

The outcome of purely photographic work is less critical. I explore abstract imagery and conceptual artwork, genres not conventionally associated with photography. This deviant perspective pushes me forward, surpassing the boundaries imposed by the camera.

Words, audio, and other accessibility features have become integral to my artistic passion. Although accessibility features are outside traditional photography, they serve as support pillars, enriching and enhancing my work. This fusion of mediums and utilizing non-photographic elements infuses my creative process with an unparalleled sense of intrigue.

TPL: What are the triumphs you have been gifted, and what are the tragedies of reality you could not change?

DW: I possess the gift of altered vision, an uncommon lens through which I perceive the world. I carry the experiences of grappling with addiction and navigating the complexities of ADHD and Autism. Perhaps the greatest triumph lies in that, despite overwhelming despair, I found the strength to endure, choosing life when the allure of death beckoned so persistently. Seeking help embodies inner strength.

There are so many tragedies in my life, but one that I cannot alter is the car accident that tragically took the life of my seven-year-old daughter. This devastating event is an acute reminder of our fragile existence. This cruel circumstance eludes my grasp and leaves a bottomless pain in my heart.

Within this spectrum of triumphs and tragedies, I navigate the human experience, embracing the nuances of both happiness and sorrow. Ultimately, kindness, mercy and curiosity guide me, seeking solace in the shared understanding that life is an ever-evolving mass of unimaginable beauty and pain.

TPL: What advice would you give to a photographer starting a new project, what are the pros and cons and what are some of the lessons you have learned along the way?

DW: The early stages of any project often yield works that fail to meet your expectations, seemingly spectacular failures. I urge you to keep everything you create. Tuck them away in a drawer, allowing time to pass. Weeks or months later, return to them with renewed perspective. Step back, and with a discerning eye, evaluate the evolution of your work.

I urge you to adopt the mantra of ABC “Always Be Creating”. Cultivate a ceaseless commitment to the creative process, allowing inspiration to flourish and guide you towards new artistic expression. Stay open to diverse influences, and welcome a broad spectrum of creative voices. Artistry knows no gender boundaries, and we enrich our artistic language by embracing diverse perspectives. Embrace the cultural richness of who you are, and adopt its uniqueness – lead with empathy, compassion, and unwavering artistic dedication.

In summary, you should cherish your failures as stepping stones towards growth, preserving each creation for future reflection. Adopt the unyielding spirit of innovation, allowing it to guide you through multifaceted artistic exploration. Embrace the contributions of artists from all walks of life and become one of them.

Lastly, “Have fun!”

TPL: What is your takeaway from this project that will inspire the next one? What do you hope the takeaway was for the viewer?

DW: Through this project, a deep realization emerges, unifying us in a fragile web of shared human experiences. Abstract shapes and colors become conduits, allowing me to explore the nature of our interconnectedness as a global community. In this exploration, I understand that the true culmination of art lies not in its creation alone but in the wallflower dance between the artwork and the Experiencer. I use the word 'experiencer' to describe a sighted or non-sighted individual who engages with and takes in artistic expression, encompassing the sensory and emotional aspects of the encounter beyond mere visual observation.

The Experiencer breathes life into the artwork, projecting their unique thoughts, actions, and interpretations. The photograph becomes a receptacle, awaiting the touch of each soul to weave its narrative, completing the intricacies of artistic expression. Empathy and compassion intertwine in this realization, for the artwork finds its ultimate purpose in resonating with the depths of the Experiencer. Through this profound connection, art transcends its static existence, becoming a living, evolving entity enriched by the multitude of perspectives and emotions it encounters.

The takeaway is that art's true essence lies not in the hands of the creator alone but in the hearts and minds of the Experiencers who bring it to life.

TPL: What is on the horizon for Doug Winter? Are there any new projects you would like to share?

DW: My current project is a National Endowment for the Arts grant solo exhibition called 'Beyond Sight', scheduled to be on exhibit at the Cosumnes River College Art Gallery in Sacramento, California, from October 5 to November 12 2023.

In this immersive exhibition, my artistic vision includes my commitment to accessibility. In the exhibition, along with large-scale photographic images, I will be using accessibility features, techniques and installations that transcend traditional photographic boundaries.

My plan is to create a space where photographic art extends its arms to welcome everyone, surpassing the confines of visual perception, hopefully becoming a transformative experience, inviting viewers to navigate a realm exceeding sight’s limitation.

TPL: When Doug Winter is not engaged in their photographic practice, where is he? What is he doing? Who is he doing it with?

DW: I find comfort and inspiration in witnessing the world through audiobooks, independent music, and the charm of captivating narratives in low-budget movies. Within these areas of imagination, I discover a connection and appreciation for the wonders embodying the power of DIY creativity.

For me, there is reassurance in the act of walking. A daily ritual unfolds as I travel the park and trails surrounding my home in Elk Grove, covering a span of 3 to 6 miles. Through the simple act of walking, I rediscover equilibrium, resilience, and exploration. I embrace the uncertainties that lie ahead in my day. Walking stimulates my daily mental rejuvenation, a means to quiet racing thoughts with the stillness of each stride. My ADHD subsides, finds space, and allows room for new creative reflection. I find objects and liberate them from the ground as inspiration. Each step is a new adventure alongside my patient partner, Kathryn Mayo.

Doug Winter has shared some valuable information with us, making us aware and sensitive to a more inclusive visual understanding of the different ways we all see, and how we all have the freedom of expression through photography. Have a look at Doug's phenomenal photographic work, where he engages you to critically think in the creative processes of photography. In honor of his remarkable talent and contributions to the arts, he was awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 2023. Follow the links and share his inspiration.

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