Cheryl Gabriel on taking photos with a visual impairment

Dog jumps up for his dinner Cheryl Gabriel captures one dog's joy at dinnertime

Photography is more than a hobby for Cheryl Gabriel. It's a passion she's nurtured since the age of seven when her parents gave her a camera. 'I come from a family where everyone has a camera, so it's a bit like, if you can't beat them join them,' she says.

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I got my diagnosis from listening to In Touch before I started working for them. I heard this person describing my eyesight condition on a radio programme I had never heard of before”

End Quote Cheryl Gabriel Producer, In Touch

Last year the radio producer posted daily pictures on her blog, taken with the Canon 7D she slings into a backpack and carries everywhere she goes. What makes this rather unusual is that Gabriel is visually impaired; she cannot read, drive or see things that others take for granted.

While some photographers might argue that good eyesight is critical to success in their field, Gabriel believes the visual medium is about expressing yourself. It's important that you know what it is you want to say with a picture, she insists, arguing that it's not unlike an author's voice in a book.

'I like humour in a picture,' says the producer for In Touch, a Radio 4 programme with news and information for blind and partially sighted people. 'I also look for the shape in pictures. Composition is really important.'

Lee, Tom, Terry and Sam take a break Lee, Tom, Terry and Sam are snapped as they take a break
Short on details

Gabriel is fortunate that she hasn't fully lost her eyesight ('I have more vision than no vision'), but she cannot see details when taking pictures. For instance, she wouldn't be able to tell if her subject's eyes are open or closed. She manually adjusts the settings on her camera depending on the conditions, and she always uses auto focus because she is unable to manually focus the camera herself.

Cheryl Gabriel The photographer captures herself

She recently got a professional qualification in photography through a course online, but the producer didn't disclose her disability to her tutors. She toyed with the idea of coming clean, but wanted the pictures to speak for themselves. 'If I started submitting stuff that was badly composed or out of focus and they came to me and said, "is there a problem here?", I would have said something, but it never happened and I never told them.'

Like any graduate, Gabriel is proud with the diploma. 'You never know how things are going to be at the BBC,' she says with a wry smile. 'It's all a bit fragile, so I thought I might as well diversify.'

The producer is helping others do the same, including blind journalists in China who could benefit from taking their own pictures. It's all part of her work with a charity called PhotoVoice that enables visually disabled people to take their own pictures. The charity advocates using photography as a tool for self-expression.

According to PhotoVoice's website, there are more than 161 million people who are visually disabled worldwide. Of these, 37m are classified as blind.

Macular degeneration

Gabriel has juvenile macular degeneration (JMD) - a condition that is rarer than its age-related counterpart (AMD) but shares many of the same symptoms. She first noticed it at the age of 17 in one eye but never had it diagnosed. Then, at the age of 30, she developed it in her other eye; this affected her work as a floor manager at ITV.

'I got my diagnosis from listening to In Touch before I started working for them. I heard this person describing my eyesight condition on a radio programme I had never heard of before. I phoned them up and said, "Can I come see you?" That's it.'

Like age-related macular degeneration, JMD leads to the loss of central vision. According to the NHS, symptoms include difficulty reading because text appears blurry, colours appearing less vibrant and difficulty recognising people's faces.

Mole photographer
Cher

Word about Gabriel's talent with cameras has spread. Colleagues have been asking for pictures for certain projects, while others will tip her off about celebrities spotted walking in and out of studios at Broadcasting House. It's how she got a candid picture of Cher.

Gabriel started her blog, The Mole Photographer, to indulge her passion for photography in her spare time. She posted every single day for a year, but now does so less frequently. The blogger has been 'fascinated by construction workers', who have featured more than once.

'They make such lovely shapes with their bodies,' she explains amid laughter, 'and they don't take notice of the camera or me unless I ask them to. They are mildly bemused if I ask to take their picture, so I have nice shots of guys doing interesting things.'

For those who don't share Gabriel's interest in construction sites, there are plenty of pictures of cute dogs too.

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