Sight Unseen: An Interview with Bruce Hall

Thursday, September 8, 2016
Bruce Hall uses photography to explore the world of his autistic sons.

Bruce Hall was born with multiple eye conditions. Legally blind, he uses cameras, lenses, magnifiers, telescopes and computer screens as extensions of his own body, using them to construct his world. A resident of California whose photography has appeared in National Geographicas well as in the Smithsonian, Hall is also involved in an ongoing project that explores the world of his profoundly autistic twin sons. The photographs currently featured in Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists are part of this project. Open until September 18, Sight Unseen explores the idea that blind people can often see in ways that sighted people cannot, and sparks thought and conversation about the rights of people with disabilities – and the attitudes or stereotypes that continue to pose barriers. I recently spoke with Bruce Hall, who shared his personal story, the motivation behind his work and the significance of having his work featured in a museum dedicated to the subject of human rights.


What does photography mean to you and what attracted you to it?

Photography is a way that I see things. Since I was a kid – seven, eight, nine years old – friends would talk about seeing stars. I’d look up in the sky and see black, except for the moon, the little white spot. A neighbour who was a machinist and a hobbyist photographer showed me how to set my camera to “bulb,” where the shutter would remain open and I could point. He helped me connect it to a little telescope I had, pointed it to a dark space in the sky and developed the film. And I saw... stars! So it dawned on me that cameras, magnifiers and other devices could help me see things that I couldn’t see with the naked eye.

In the United States, under the law, I’m legally blind. I can’t read street signs. I’m sitting close to you right now, a couple of feet away and I can’t see the colour of your eyes. So if I photographed someone’s face, which is something I do a lot, I can go back and see people’s eyes, and I love that. A friend wrote about me once that “he sees things twice”, first, a blurry impression and then, the detail up very close. Quite simply, I use photography to see the world, to see nature, to see people.


You’re currently involved in a photography project to document the life of your twin sons, who are both autistic. Can you tell us about this and why you’re doing it?

You know, I’ve learned a lot of things in my life the hard way. And with the boys, it was so unexpected. Parents don’t expect that. We have a typical daughter who’s 16. She’s a musician and goes to an arts high school. With the boys, it’s just the opposite end of the world, and it really gives you a sense of the loss because, I mean, they’re 15-year-old men now and they have the intellectual capacity of… no one can be sure, but it’s very low.

One day in 2007, out of sheer frustration, my daughter and I went out in the backyard. We had a little blue pool and we all like water, so we got hoses. She was throwing buckets of water in the air. I had a little camera in a little plastic housing, and it was the first time in my life where I didn’t have to control everything because with the boys, they don’t pose. You can’t ask them: “Oh could you sit over here?” It’s not going to happen. So instead, I said to myself: “Ok, just shoot, you know, like a street photographer. Just go after it. Just chase it. Attack it.” And I did. I just kept doing it and kept chasing it and 200,000 photos later...


How did you come to be a part of the Sight Unseen exhibition?

I met Doug McCullough1 in 2008. I was at a photo show and I talked to him for five minutes and I thought: “What an interesting guy!” I’d shown him my nature stuff and my water stuff and, on my computer, he noticed some of the shots I’d taken of my sons. He said: “Can I see more of these?” and I said: “Sure.” And he said: “These are wonderful! These are amazing!” He calls me up six months later and he says, “I’m curating a show and I’ve seen some of your work. I’d like to come and meet you. It’s for Sight Unseen.” So he’s been a real supporter since 2008. He’s encouraged me to show my work.

The photos that are in the show – five or six – one of them was made into a 3D tactile thing. When I first saw it, I was like: “That’s kind of weird.” You know, my son was seven or eight at the time, in the bathtub… And then I saw the 3D PhotoWorks video. Mr. Furber, Program and Services Director for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, was talking about that picture and he says: “It reminds me of my own kids when they were young,” and it just really got to me. I thought: “Cool. This is great!” If it gives anybody pleasure, I love it.

Boy in a bathtub with his mouth open. Drops of splashing water surround him as his left hand has just come out of the water.
Bruce Hall's "Bath Time" is one of the images which was reproduced into a three-dimensional, tactile version for people with vision loss.


2016 is the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of People with Disabilities.  Are you active in the movement for the rights of persons with disabilities?

I work with an autism centre in my town and my county in Southern California and I’ve been involved in fundraisers to help early intervention and therapy for kids. I’ll donate time or photographs. And I’m on the board of a group in California called R. Morgan Corporation. It’s a non-profit. We’re trying to develop affordable housing options for adults with developmental disabilities, and we’re working with a pretty large organization in Southern California involved in housing issues for veterans with disabilities, single moms and homeless people. So that’s the focus now, because as the boys age out of our educational system at 22, we worry about it every day. When I’m gone, when we’re gone, how are they going to live? You’re trying to get the supports in place but it’s a lot of people. There’s a big homelessness problem in the city I live in. So I’m involved in all these things.

In fact, my wife and I are almost finished a book about our experiences with our boys, our family, autism and developmental disability. I’ve been taking pictures for nine years now and, over the last five years, we’ve put a book together to put a face on this. You know, everybody pulls on your heartstrings to get people’s attention. Well, I photograph the good and the bad. A lot of it was really good and fun – it was fun for them and it was fun for me too! But I wanted to record the harsher side of it because the media tends to only focus on the feel-good stories, the success stories. According to the Center for Disease Control in the United States, 62 per cent of people with an autism diagnosis have a co-occurring condition like an intellectual disability, like seizures or self-injuries. And the truth is the very low-functioning people are safer in our system. They’re going to be taken care of in some fashion. They’re going to have shelter, food and care. I worry most about the people in the middle. They can be arrested and they may not understand what they’re doing. So there’s a whole bunch of layers to this.


What does it mean to you to have your photography featured in a human rights museum?

I think this is just a wonderful thing. I mean, I was kind of an outcast as a kid. I couldn’t get a driver’s licence, couldn’t play baseball, so I just kind of related to those people, the ones that didn’t fit in. And I look at a place like this, and it’s like: “You know what? We’re all on the same planet together and we can fight and fight and fight or we can figure out a way to get along and not be so greedy.” I’ve never understood people getting up in arms about people’s lifestyles. It’s like whatever makes people happy, as long as they don’t knock me down on the street, hey, because we’re all different people. I have vague memories of the late 1950s as a child living in Maryland. There was a Japanese family at the end of the street and I remember the anger and the racism. It wasn’t too far after World War II and I just... I’m worried about my own country right now.

But back to your question. There’s so much here I haven’t seen yet. When I walked in with my cane, you know, people get worried. They will always help you, but the problem with those devices is that people immediately make assumptions, you see, and I brought a cane for the talk because I wanted to mention that. “What do you think of when you see somebody with one? What’s your immediate reaction?” I’ll ask the audience. “And I want you all to be honest with yourselves, because I know that I make assumptions sometimes too. I try not to, but we all do it.” And I found in my life, that if people didn’t see me trying to read or do something visual, I’d fit right in. It’s a very different dynamic than if somebody tells them upfront. It’s like: “Oh, he can’t see. Oh, poor thing.” So, I really believe in what you guys are doing and it’s an honour to be here.


1 Doug McCullough is the curator of the original Sight Unseen exhibition, which was shown at UCR/California Museum of Photography, an affiliate institution of ARTSblock of the University of California, Riverside.