Photographer out to prove nothing is impossible

Written by on December 4, 2012 in Seattle Housing Authority - No comments

Legally blind, a Tri-Court resident shares his love of photography with the visually impaired

The USS Halsey, with Century Link field in the background, is seen in a photo by Robert Wright. A Tri-Court resident, Wright is legally blind, but uses autofocus technology to capture vivid images with both film and digital cameras.

Note: All photos are by Robert Wright

By Tyler Roush
The Voice editor
The images are sharp, the angles interesting, the colors vivid. Everything about the photographs in Robert Wright’s portfolio suggest a trained eye behind the lens — and, in fact, Wright is a trained photographer.

Robert Wright

But there’s one thing about Wright that makes him unique from most photographers: He’s legally blind.
His visual impairment hasn’t stopped the Tri-Court resident from pursuing a decades-long hobby of photography, one that’s seen him through the old days of 35mm film to the new era of digital.
On the way, he’s become an advocate for the visually impaired, proving that even a lack of sight is no obstacle to capturing beautiful images.
“I feel that people with disabilities are not given enough opportunities to shine,” Wright said. “The message I’ve tried to convey to the handicap community through all of my work is that nothing is impossible.”

A window to “the other side of the world”
Today, nearly every camera — from the large cameras used by photojournalists on assignment to the small point-and-shoot cameras that fit in your pocket — has an auto-focus function. But the technology, first developed by German optics company Leica in the 1960s, wasn’t widely available in cameras until the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1987, in an off-hand remark from a friend, that Wright even learned it existed. Though the technology was available, it simply wasn’t marketed to the visually impaired, a community that Wright said camera makers had long overlooked.

A pedestrian bridge in Seattle

Wright immediately sensed the potential of autofocus for use by the blind community. His own visual acuity — Wright has 20-400 vision with eyeglasses — allows him to discern shapes and colors well enough to frame photographs. But correctly focusing the image is virtually impossible — a matter of guesswork when using a manual-focus lens.
But with an autofocus lens to detect the subject of his photograph, Wright can frame the image that he has in mind and get a result that is sharp and clear.
Before discovering autofocus, Wright said he felt limited in what he could do as a photographer. He likened it to being down in a hole — able to see light from up above, but surrounded by darkness. That changed after he acquired his first autofocus camera.
“I found I was on the other side of the world in a sense,” he said. “When you finally get out of the hole, you’re on the other side of the world.”

An accident that changed his life
When Wright was growing up in the 1950s, seat belts in cars were optional — child car seats were virtually nonexistent. In 1955, he went for a car ride with his parents, sitting on his mother’s lap in the front seat.
The car skidded on slippery pavement, the brakes failed, and the car careened into a gully before striking a telephone pole. The force of impact threw his mother forward, and Wright was pressed between her body and the dashboard. No one else in the car was seriously injured, but Wright suffered brain and optic nerve damage. He was 16 days old.
The injury is still with him today, affecting his short-term memory, his tolerance for pain (he has a higher-than-average pain threshold) … and his sight.
He doesn’t blame his parents for what happened — there were circumstances beyond their control, he said. In a way, he’s grateful for the timing of the accident.

Statue outside KING-TV studios

“Because I had it so early in life, I don’t have a point of reference,” Wright said. “So that was a blessing.”
Though challenged by his injuries, Wright’s parents were unfailing in their support for him, encouraging him to pursue whatever opportunities were set before him.
“They never labeled me handicapped — I never knew the word,” he said.
In high school in Bremerton, Wright managed the football and baseball teams, carried a briefcase with him to class and was voted homecoming king. He graduated with a 3.55 GPA.
Then came college — 22 years of college. Wright enrolled at Bremerton’s Olympic College out of high school, taking a lighter course load to complete the work at his own pace. After completing his associate degree, he enrolled at the University of Washington, and sought admission to the business school. But he was frustrated when he said he was repeatedly denied admission. He persisted for 10 years. When he was finally accepted, his first quarter he pulled a 3.1 GPA.
“All through my life, I’ve had to go 200 percent to get to 100 percent,” he said.

Snoqualmie Falls and Salish Lodge

Today he holds dual Bachelor’s degrees from UW in business and speech communications.
Photography has remained one of his deepest passions. In his apartment, he has boxes and albums full of his photographs, spanning four decades of his work. One of his photographs — taken with a manual-focus camera — appeared in the Bremerton Sun in 1978. He’s also photographed an eye-popping number of celebrities, from local personalities such as John Curley, J.P. Patches and Jean Enerson, to famous actors and athletes — Bruce Campbell, Charles Barkley, Jamie Foxx, even Oprah Winfrey.
“They’re hard to get to, so every time I get to (photograph them), it serves as an example that everything is possible for the handicapped.”
Wright isn’t satisfied simply with practicing his favorite hobby — he wants to let others who are visually impaired know what opportunities are available to them.
He refers the visually impaired and those with disabilities to resources for accessible photography, travel and services at his websites, www.wrightimages.com, www.travelready.org and www.wherecanifind.org.
Neighbor Mirriam Simmons, 74, said that Wright practices a giving nature, in actions as well as words.
“He’s very conscious of helping other people,” said Simmons. “He’s always willing to make sure, even with his limitations, he’s always willing to help other people.”

Century Link field

He also gives back to his community as president of the Tri-Court Resident Council.
Simmons and Wright share a close bond — she says that he is like a son to her. When Wright makes a trip to the store — he can’t legally drive a car, but uses a 21-speed bicycle for transportation — he offers to pick up groceries for Simmons, who lives alone.
Wright said that Simmons, to her credit, is always patient with his tendency for making puns.
“He tries to please everybody,” she said. “I try to tell him, ‘Everybody’s not going to like you, but you like yourself. You love yourself.’”
Wright practices that brand of humility, accepting his limitations without letting them limit what he can do. And he reminds us to turn the lens on ourselves from time to time.
“Is there anything you have to ask for help in doing?” Wright asked. “If the answer is yes, you’re handicapped.”

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