Photographer Vivienne Gucwa is a former Sony Artisan that still shoots with the system. She’s considered cortically blind — which is a fascinating term that goes above our heads in terms of comprehension. But despite this, she’s able to create ethereal and dreamy photos of NY and other places. How she does this is a truly compelling story.
Alpha Vision is presented in partnership with Sony. Sony has made several strides towards helping low vision creators with packages like the Retinal Projection Camera Kit. Other cameras, like the Sony a7r V, have extra accessibility features that help someone navigate the menu system and use the camera much easier. This story is part of an initiative to bring the voices and artwork of these photographers to the front. Our Editor in Chief is legally blind, so these stories bring a unique understanding to the type of images these photographers produce.
All images used with permission from Vivienne Gucwa
Vivienne Gucwa’s Story
Vivienne hails from Queens, NY. She grew up in a financially challenged family that belonged to a cult and always felt something was off. This made her daydream a lot about the lives of others in books, movies, video games, etc. Her adult years were quite hard when she left the cult and worked to put herself through school. In 2008, the world went into a recession, and she quite going after the degree to instead choose to put a roof over her head. She eventually finished school after a stressful transition.
So to deal with the stress, she would go on long walks for miles in NYC. She saw so many beautiful moments and scenes and wanted to capture them. So Vivienne got a camera. “I went on Amazon and purchased the cheapest point and shoot I could find,” she tells us. “At $79, it was a huge investment at the time. It had one button and a few settings (one of which was broken!).” This camera was Vivienne’s constant companion.
That’s how she started her Tumblr, NY Through the Lens. A few months passed, and she was posted to 70,000 followers. The beautiful messages and words of affirmation kept her motivated to keep shooting. It eventually led to client work, album covers, book covers, etc. and eventually, it then led her to Sony.
How She Shoots
Over the years, Vivienne has used the Sony a7r II, Sony a99 II, Sony NEX 6, Sony NEX 7, and the Sony RX100 IV. “My favorite lens is the Sony FE 16-35 f 2.8, with the Sony FE 24-70 f 2.8 coming in a close second,” She tells us. “My favorite camera and lens combination has always been a combo that allows me to be in the moment and allows me to not even think or get bogged down by technical issues.” She’s spent a good portion of time photographing every snowstorm in NYC, so her gear needed to be able to keep up. However, she also states that she covers her gear in a plastic bag at times.
I tend to favor shooting wide for my cityscapes and 18 mm has always been my sweet spot so the Sony FE 16-35 f 2.8 has been a versatile lens for this shooting style.Vivienne Gucwa
In fact, Vivienne has used the gear up in the Arctic on an expedition where she couldn’t carry very much with her. By living in NYC, she jokes that this was easy because it was already a self-imposed reality. Essentially, she tries to keep it simple.
Vivienne hasn’t tried Sony’s new Retinal Projection Camera Kit yet. But she believes that it’s an incredible gift to photographers. “Visual impairments really span a huge spectrum of issues, and having a device that can help even a fraction of people along this spectrum to see and experience better vision feels like a miracle,” she states. “I would love to know more about the laser technology and I can just imagine how invigorating and emotional it must be to experience something like better vision for people who have lived their lives assuming this would never be an option.”
How She Sees
In several conversations, Vivienne has shared with us that she has one “good” eye. She states that Sony’s high-quality LCD screens and EVFs have always been a huge help for her. “Because the quality of the EVF is so good on the Sony cameras I have used, I have been able to sometimes skip the step of holding the camera body up to my eye to compose a photo and then having a period of adjustment where I needed to wait for my good eye to adjust back to being able to view the scene without the camera,” she shares. It’s also a huge help in difficult weather. Using the EVF tends to be jarring for her due to her eyesight — and so using the LCD screen makes the whole process easier.
To explain Vivienne’s vision more, she has what’s called Type 1 blindsight — which she says is peculiar and difficult to explain. She cites the Wikipedia definition:
“Blindsight is the ability of people who are cortically blind due to lesions in their striate cortex, also known as primary visual cortex or V1, to respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see.
Most studies are done on folks who have blindsight on only one side of the visual field. It challenged the common belief that perceptions must enter consciousness to affect our behavior. In fact, the way that Vivienne talks about it seems almost like magic or extra sensory perception.
The majority of studies on blindsight are conducted on patients who have the conscious blindness on only one side of their visual field. Following the destruction of the striate cortex, patients are asked to detect, localize, and discriminate amongst visual stimuli that are presented to their blind side, often in a forced-response or guessing situation, even though they do not consciously recognize the visual stimulus.
Research shows that blind patients achieve a higher accuracy than would be expected from chance alone. Type 1 blindsight is the term given to this ability to guess—at levels significantly above chance—aspects of a visual stimulus (such as location or type of movement) without any conscious awareness of any stimuli.
Vivienne states that her own experience comes from her being able to sense people by their movements even without seeing them. Little things like routine patterns being off by just a bit are detected by her on her left side — which is her blind side. But the feeling is even more amplified on her right side.
“I used to call it my own version of spidey-sense before I knew what blindsight was.”
In fact, Vivienne didn’t even realize or know that she was blind in one of her eyes until she was 24 years old. Considering her upbringing, she didn’t have access to doctors that would tell her much. But when she was 9 years old, she recounts a rushed school eye exam where she couldn’t read a chart using her right eye. When she couldn’t read the chart, they diagnosed her with a lazy eye and prescribed glasses — one of the lenses was comically thick.
These gave her chronic headaches — and in her teenage years they prescribed a stronger prescription for her. But when she moved out, she broke her glasses and didn’t have money for eye exams. These stopped her headaches.
It wasn’t until her mid-twenties that an ophthalmologist took a hard look at her and asked her how she sees the world through her right eye. “I see scattered light only the light looks like it’s being seen through broken glass like light through a crushed kaleidoscope,” Vivienne told her doctor — recounting that it sounded strange to say out loud. After an MRI, they diagnosed her with cortical blindness.
So here’s what you should know about how Vivienne Gucwa sees:
- She sees the world with her left eye and there is cortical blindness in her right eye. So this means she shoots with her left eye. She doesn’t even think about her right eye at all and likens it to being colored glass.
- “I don’t always see or visit the colored glass world,” she tells us. “In fact, most of the time, there is no conscious awareness of the colored glass world.”
- She can switch between worlds. When she’s really tired or daydreaming, she tends to think more through her right eye because it feels like a soothing escape. She also does this when she plays piano or is super happy.
- She slipped into the world of her right eye when editing photos.
In this way, Vivienne photographs and sees in both worlds.
Thoughts on AI Imagery by Vivienne Gucwa
AI imagery is certainly a concern for several photographers out there. Vivienne is one of those who shared those worries. “Human artists are being passed over and losing out on job opportunities to instances where AI is being used by companies to cut corners and save money,” she voices. “More usage of AI will lead to a loss of more and more jobs.” She continues to say that the arts have always been a difficult place to support a viable career — but now it feels impossible.
What makes this even more difficult for Vivienne is that the United States doesn’t have anything in place to account for the massive displacement of workers — and that’s not even addressing the other ethical issues. And more importantly, we’re at a place where AI will replace many people — and Vivienne feels this should be a major cause of concern.