The amazing story of the blind photographer

Plus: David Tennant’s heroic debut on Just a Minute

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

Perhaps the news that Radio 5 live will be the only BBC station (under the new broadcasting rights agreements) to broadcast ‘live’ golf will ensure that its audience stays above the six million listeners now dreamt of by its controller Jonathan Wall as the magic number he needs for the network to stay buoyant. (Figures announced last week showed that 5 live has lost 10 per cent of its audience after a radical shake-up of its presenting team, losing especially Shelagh Fogarty and Victoria Derbyshire, which had the knock-on effect of turning it even more blokey.) At first the idea sounds absurd —golf on radio. It’s such a slow-paced game, I’ve never been able to watch it on TV, let alone bothered to find out what’s happening at Fort Augustus or Turnberry by tuning in on air. But, then, listening to cricket is pretty off-the-wall, let alone football, tennis, rugby, swimming, horse racing. The art of radio commentating has nothing to do with what’s being commented on and everything to do with the ability to tell stories, to give us in words what we cannot ourselves see, by the commentator’s ability to see what’s going on behind the flight of a ball, the goalkeeper’s save, the tennis player’s meltdown.

On Radio 4 this week we heard from a blind photographer, Rosita McKenzie. Yes, she takes photographs without being able to see what she is taking. On An Image of Sound (produced by Andrew Dawes) she told us how she does it and it was magically convincing.

‘Close your eyes, concentrate more on the sounds and the atmosphere,’ she said as she stood close to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland trying to envisage the grandeur of the snaking Roman wall, the bleakness of the landscape, the sense of history in that place. But how do you take a picture without having the view you want to capture in front of you?

Because you can’t see, explained McKenzie, you have to develop ‘an emotional connection’ with the view, using those senses beyond sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Spatial awareness, balance, atmosphere can be caught by just standing still and listening to the larks on the wing, the wind gusting across the empty space, the murmur of a car in the distance.

She was in the company of another photographer, Andrew Heptinstall, who is intrigued by the idea that when looking at photographs we often remember what the scene sounded like, children shrieking at a funfair, waves lapping on the beach. What if you focused on the sounds in a view rather than what you were actually seeing? How different would the photograph be?

He took instruction from McKenzie, closing his eyes and figuring out from what he could hear where he should stand, in which direction he should point the camera. She explained that when she comes to caption her pictures (with assistance from a sighted person) she remembers what the view meant to her, what it felt like to be there. The photograph becomes an experience, an attempt to capture the spirit of place.

The sound recordist Chris Watson spent a night on Skellig Michael, a savage-looking outcrop of rock off the coast from south-west Ireland, hoping to capture the nightlife of the island on his tape machine. It made for haunting radio, not just the sounds we heard, but imagining him dropped off from the boat and left alone to clamber up the steep cliff-face and settle himself down for the night with nothing but his recording gear for company.

The island was once inhabited by monks, sent into isolation to create ‘a battery of prayer power’. They built 700 steps into the rockface to make its ascent possible and beehive cells at the top to live in. On the way up Watson encounters kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars and razorbills, as he told us on The Cliff (Radio 4, Tuesday). He was, though, more interested in what he could hear at night, as the storm petrels flew in under cover of darkness to avoid being attacked by the gulls. Watson could just about see them through the gloom, flitting almost bat-like in and out of the crumbling walls. But it was the sound of the Manx shearwaters which arrived after midnight that sent shivers down my spine. Screaming, ethereal-like, as if they were ghosts from the underworld. Eerie, too, to realise Watson was hearing exactly what those monks would have endured, night after night, centuries ago.

It sounds so easy, to talk for 60 seconds without stopping, or losing the plot, but as Radio 4’s ever-popular Just a Minute has proved over the years it can trip up even the most articulate of guests. The latest series was launched on Monday with the actor David Tennant in the spotlight as he made his first appearance on the show. Given what has to be an easy subject for him — Shakespeare’s ludicrous stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ — he proved his actorly mettle by rattling on without interruption and without stopping or rambling off the point until the whistle went. Impressive.

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