Sometimes when she’s taking pictures, Sonia Soberats forgets she cannot see. Until 1986, Ms. Soberats was like many single immigrant mothers — living in Queens, working two jobs and watching her two children grow into flourishing adults. Life began to crumble, though, when ovarian cancer was diagnosed for her only daughter. Two years later, the family received more bad news: her only son had Hodgkin’s disease. He died in 1991, and three years later, so did Ms. Soberats’s daughter. In between those deaths, Ms. Soberats, who had a history of glaucoma, lost her eyesight. First the right eye went dark, then about six months later, the left.
“That biblical story about the seven good years and the seven bad years? That happened to me,” Ms. Soberats, 77, said in an interview at her home in Jackson Heights. “I think their sickness helped me cope with my blindness. Because I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about them. How much they were suffering, how much they were going through.”
It is this mix of pain and perseverance that Ms. Soberats weaves throughout her photographs. Her subjects are often friends or family, and she frequently captures or recreates life-altering events: pregnancies, marriages, death. Her work is often joyous, but it can be haunting, even schizophrenic. She plays with light and texture and draws on her Latin roots, taking the viewer on a journey to places as magical as the the fictional town of Macondo or as surreal as a Salvador Dalí painting.
In 2001, Ms. Soberats began taking photography classes in Manhattan, joining a long line of individuals with disabilities — including other blind people — who have used photography as a means of both therapy and expression. Unlike blind artists like Kurt Weston, however, Ms. Soberats had never been a photographer before losing her sight.
Ms. Soberats does not rely on capturing a decisive moment. Instead, her technique, called light painting, involves careful planning and imagination.
Her images may be conceived during a walk through Union Square or at a party with friends, when the scent of flowers or the sound of Mexican men singing boleros provoke a flurried catalog of imagery, waiting to be captured.
Back in the studio, she works in complete darkness, always with the help of a seeing assistant. She arranges her models, using her hands to feel every aspect of the image, instructing her assistant where to place the edges of the frame.
“I feel your face, your hair, then I’ll ask you: ‘Are you light-colored? Or dark? Is your hair blonde or brown or black?’ ” she said. “So with asking and touching, then I’ll get an idea of what I have to work with.”
Ms. Soberats then asks her assistant to open the shutter, and using various light sources, including flashlights and Christmas lights, she darts about the frame like Tinkerbell, illuminating details within the image. The shutter remains open anywhere from two minutes to an hour.
“You go into the picture and you forget what is around you and that you’re blind,” she said. “Our mind is vast. You can go over and over everything and obtain all the information you need.”
Ms. Soberats will work like this for hours, crawling on the ground, moving about the room. “I have a stenosis in my spine,” she said. “Last Thursday I had epidural shots in both my sides. I’ve been through a lot of pain taking pictures.”
She added: “When I get home I just have to go to bed and rest. But I forget my pain while I’m taking the pictures.”
During a 90-minute shoot, she may take just three or four frames.
For seeing individuals, it may seem bizarre that Ms. Soberats dedicates so much time to an art she cannot fully appreciate. Why not a more tactile pursuit, like sculpting? But Ms. Soberats said she savored her work through the eyes of others.
“The more difficult the photo, the more interesting and the more rewarding when you complete it and it’s good,” she said. “To be able to realize and obtain something that at the end everybody praises, it’s very satisfactory.”
In February, Ms. Soberats traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, for her first solo exhibition, “Visión Intransferible,” at the Centro de Arte La Estancia. She has also traveled the world with the Seeing With Photography Collective, a group of visually impaired photographers based in New York, and she has given workshops in light painting to both seeing and blind individuals. She is the focus of the forthcoming documentary “El Laberinto de lo Posible,” a film by the Venezuelan director Wanadi Siso that explores the lives of blind individuals who have overcome great challenges.
“It surprised me that the human mind can do whatever it wants if we work toward it,” Ms. Soberats said.
Reblogged from The New York Times.