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Vancouver photographer Amy Amantea shares her perspectives on shooting blind in Through My Lens

Amy Amantea
In addition to taking photographs, Amy Amantea is associate director of VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society.

Accessibility consultant Amy Amantea describes her upcoming Vancouver shows as an “intersection of photography and blindness”. Legally blind for 16 years, she takes pictures by pointing her camera at the light. In Through My Lens at the Russian Hall on January 25 and 27, she will bring an audience member into a small studio photography space. Then, that person will choose images to discuss with her as they’re projected on a screen.

“There’s a conversation between me and the person,” Amantea explains. “That, of course, is improvised based on what they offer and how I respond to that. Then, there’s the storytelling narrative through it—and some surprises at the end that I don’t necessarily want to give away.”

Through this discussion, Amantea will share her story of blindness as well as her perspective.

“This is not about ‘poor Amy, this is how she sees the world,’ ” Amantea insists. “There are different perspectives—and my perspective is beautiful. I love my perspective and I wouldn’t change my perspective because it’s a gift.”

Through My Lens is part of the Hold On Let Go festival, which runs from January 23 to 27 and January 30 to February 2 at the Russian Hall. Presented by Theatre Replacement and Company 605, it will showcase contemporary performance work by Canadian artists. The festival’s name reflects producers’ desire to embrace change.

Amy Amantea
Photo by Nico Dicecco/Theatre Replacement.

Amantea lives with Type 1 diabetes

Amantea’s blindness is linked to her Type 1 diabetes, which was diagnosed at the age of five. Her father also has Type 1 diabetes. It’s an autoimmune disease preventing the pancreas from producing insulin—a hormone that enables cells to absorb blood sugar to produce energy.

“It was very normal in my family and I never had any single problem with diabetes until I was about 23 years old,” she says. “Then, I found myself in a diabetic coma and everything sort of happened from there.”

As a result of complications from surgery, Amantea lost around 98 percent of her overall vision. She adds that there have been other consequences associated with the disease, most of which are invisible.

“The thing about diabetes is you can be the most controlled diabetic, which I was, and shit happens,” Amantea states. “And you can be the most uncontrolled diabetic and you can be like Teflon… It’s insidious that way.”

Amy Amantea

Finding the light

Nearly a decade ago, she began taking pictures while blind. It came after meeting a woman whose husband is a photographer and began mentoring Amantea.

“So, we started a journey to find out what that would be like,” Amantea says.

She describes her photographic process as “finding the light”. When she notices an interesting patch of illumination, she takes a picture.

“It could be flowers; it could be trees; it could be cars. I don’t know what’s there. I’m just shooting the light, so whatever is there is there.”

Several years after her mentorship, she attended a Theatre Replacement workshop. The company’s co-founder, James Long, was in the room at the time.

“All these fantastic artists were talking about projects they were doing,” Amantea recalls. “I wasn’t doing anything but I had this idea about something that could involve people who would describe my photographs to me.”

Long offered to help and it grew from there. Amantea launched the concept with the help of Theatre Replacement at the Vines Festival. It has since been performed at the Festival of Live Digital Art in Kingston, Ontario.

Amy Amantea
Photo by Amy Amantea.

Hosting Accessible Arts Adventures

Long is the director of Through My Lens and he and Amantea share the writing credit. Nico Dicecco oversees media design and operation, Anita Rochon provides dramaturgical support, and Sophie Tang creates the lighting and set design. Daniel O’Shea is responsible for technical direction.

Amantea is no stranger to the arts. She has performed in Realwheels Theatre productions of Sequels, Comedy on Wheels, and Wheel Voices: Tune In. In addition, she’s associate director of VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society.

“We make arts and culture more accessible by doing live descriptions for the blind,” Amantea says.

She points out that many blind and partially sighted people weren’t exposed to culture growing up. As a result, live descriptions of theatrical performances are something new to them.

“For other people, they went to ballet and sat in the theatre with their sighted parents and couldn’t see it, and listened to music,” Amantea says.

She hosts VocalEye’s online Accessible Arts Adventures, which include audio plays, virtual art tours, festival highlights, and storytelling.

“We have been able to get to so many folks from across Canada and the U.S., who just never had access to arts before.”

Amy Amantea hosted VocalEye’s preview of this year’s PuSh festival in Vancouver.

She also works with AMI (Accessible Media Inc.), which is a national broadcast organization. Amantea does weekly movie reviews and monthly community reports.

“I review some of their TV shows for content that is ableist,” Amantea says. “So, I’m looking for what we call ableist micro-aggressions.”

That includes what’s derisively referred to as “inspiration porn”. This occurs when people with disabilities are objectified to inspire the mainstream to achieve greater things in life.

AMI posted this video about Amy Amantea on YouTube.

Amantea endorses social model of disability

Amantea emphasizes that every equity-seeking group has micro-aggressive language. She says that people can avoid making ableist micro-aggressions by staying away from words related to a diagnostic or disability experience.

For example, she advises not using the term “visually impaired”.

“The word ‘impaired’ essentially means broken, right?” Amantea says. “So, if you think about unconscious bias and if you think that I’m broken before you even meet me, I can never achieve equity. The other part of that is we are also setting up a power dynamic that sighted people are not broken and blind people are broken.”

Furthermore, “visually impaired” comes from a medical diagnosis, according to Amantea, just like “stage 4” of a disease. Therefore, “visually impaired” arises from a “medical model of disability”, which implies that a person needs to be fixed.

That’s in contrast to the “social model of disability”, which does not suggest that the person is broken.

“It’s actually the environment that’s not set up in a barrier-free way for you to live your life as independently as possible,” she declares. “For these reasons, I say ‘visually impaired’ is out.”

Theatre Replacement and Company 605 will present access advocate Amy Amantea’s Through My Lens at 6 p.m. on Thursday (January 25) and 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday (January 27) at the Russian Hall. Part I of Hold On Let Go runs from January 23 to 27. Part II runs from January 30 to February 2 at the same location. For more information and tickets, visit holdonletgo.ca.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.