Legally Blind Photographer Uses Her Own Photos To See the World

Tammy Ruggles shoots photos in a field near her home. She was born with retinitis pigmentosa, and is now legally blind.

Photo by Kate Hiller

Tammy Ruggles has never seen the world with 20-20 vision.

Born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that results in loss of vision over time, she got her first pair of glasses when she was two years old. At the age of 40, she was declared legally blind and had to retire from her career in social work because she was no longer able to drive (a job requirement in rural Lewis County, Kentucky).

“I always had poor vision, so I don’t know what it’s like to see perfectly,” she said as we started talking in her home last summer. “But I do know what it’s like to have it decline because I have had better vision in the past. I could read labels.”

After retiring, she turned to her hobbies: writing and sketching. Ruggles has published several books, which are available on Amazon. Sketching portraits was something she loved doing growing up, but as her vision continued to decline she lost the ability to sketch with chalk and pencils. At the urging of some of her Facebook friends, she turned to finger painting as an alternative and spent about a year creating a collection of paintings. When she was happy with the collection, she let finger painting go.

Then, in fall 2013, Ruggles got her first point and shoot camera. “I just walked around the yard, snapping, trying to get the hang of it,” she says. “When I got the camera back in, I plugged it in and the pictures popped up. I enlarged them, and I could see things on here that I did not see with my eyes.”

"Windy Field"
“Windy Field”
"Mountain" Polaroid image
“Mountain” Polaroid image
"Bale" Polaroid image
“Bale” Polaroid image

Though never able to study traditional darkroom photography due to her night blindness, Ruggles has always loved the idea of being a photographer. However, the black-and-white product that comes from darkroom development is easier for her to see. So when she shoots, her camera is either already set to black-and-white mode or she increases contrast and removes color from images on her computer.

“To me, that’s classic photography, black and white,” she says. “I like color, but colors, they kind of bleed in together and it’s kind of like a big color mess. But black and white, it’s either, or.”

"Sun Gazing"
“Sun Gazing”

Ruggles’s trailer is impeccably clean, with nothing on the floor—and thus no fear of tripping. She sits with her back facing the large television screen that serves as a zoomed-in computer screen.

“I keep this little desk mobile so if I have to get up here, see something closer, move around, I just keep everything where I can move it where I have to,” she says, turning around to demonstrate the functionality of a small, wheeled green table where her keyboard and mouse sit, only a few feet away from the screen.

A few minutes later, we walk outside, cameras in tow, to a field next to her home. In this familiar area, she doesn’t use a cane, just walks slowly with care and confidence.

Her process for shooting photos is pretty simple: she points, shoots, then goes back inside to see how the images turn out. Ruggles plugs her Sony RX 100 into her computer to see the images on her big screen. Most of the time, she uses Silver Effects to make her photos black and white, which makes details easier for her to see.

“A flower is small, right, but on here I can just see what I had missed,” Ruggles says, opening up and increasing the contrast on one of the images she just took outside. “That was something I hadn’t expected. I say the camera sees for me, and I mean that literally.”

Though she has thoroughly enjoyed seeing the world through this lens for the last two years, Ruggles says this fall will probably her last season taking photographs.

“I’m so happy to have been able to do that, and so happy with the pictures I have,” she says. “That’s the way I do. When I’m inspired to do something, I’ll exhaust it until I’m finished with it and I’m happy with what I have, then I move on to something else. Part of me thinks I won’t be able to see at this level, I don’t know how long, so I want to take advantage of it and shoot, shoot, shoot while I can. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this next year, I really don’t.”

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