Flashes of Light in the Darkest Depths: The Faith and Life of Blind Photographer Pete Eckert

Pete Eckert is a unique artist featured in the documentary. I reviewed the film earlier this year and spoke with Eckert afterward about his spiritual and artistic journey.
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Pete Eckert is a unique artist featured in the documentary Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers. I reviewed the film earlier this year and spoke with Eckert afterward about his spiritual and artistic journey. Here's our conversation, edited for space:

Christine A. Scheller: As you know, I was exposed to your work through the documentary Dark Light, which is about blind photographers. Do you have any vision at all?

Pete Eckert: No. I have some light perception, but I also have phantom things that go on like crackling lightning and spirals. Somebody comes up and makes a loud noise; I get a big burst of white light come across my vision.

CS: Do doctors have an explanation for that or is it just something going on in your brain responding to the noise?

PE: The last 25 years or so, I've been actively rewiring the optic cortex. And so, it doesn't surprise me when a sound will generate a visual effect. Somebody comes up and I don't hear them and they grab hold of my shoulder, or if there's a loud noise, I get this burst of light. That's, I think, direct evidence that there's a cross-over between sound, touch and vision.

CS: What condition caused you to lose your sight?

PE: I have Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). My life is divided very neatly into two sides. I started to go blind when I was 27 or so. I had 210 degrees of vision. I dropped down to 90 degrees within just a couple of months. But I had 10 years of some central vision. I was legally blind, but I was a foreman of a construction crew at that time. I could shoot at the top of National Rifle Association pistol competitions. I made a lot of use of my central vision.

CS: Was that a terrifying experience to go through?

PE: It's very emotional. RP is very cruel. You adapt and then some more vision gets taken. You adapt again and some more vision gets taken. Depending on how long it takes for you to drop down into complete blindness, you're always suffering a loss. It's as if you are watching yourself die.

CS: What sustained you through that continual sense of loss?

PE: That's hard to say. I refused to accept blindness. I always pushed out into the world. When I got my first guide dog, we had some mishaps. I almost got run over by a train. A number of cars almost hit us. It was very difficult to adapt. Finally, at one point, I just decided my independence and freedom [are things] I'm willing to die for.

CS: Did your Christian faith help you deal with the losses?

PE: Perhaps, perhaps. I'm not really sure. I could see that something was taken, but something was given. You could call that faith. ... I base my life on the Ten Commandments. But then, also on the tenets of Tae Kwon Do: Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit. The tenets that I just rang off there, they're just reflections of the Ten Commandments. A lot of them, if you thought about it, they fit together. A lot of Christians, they forget to be courteous. And then, when you run into trouble, you don't give up -- you know the indomitable spirit.

CS: You were a visual artist before you went blind. At what point did you begin doing photography?

PE: After I was totally blind.

CS: How did that come about?

PE: I was looking through a drawer and I came across my mother-in-law's old camera. ... I like mechanical things. I was fooling with it and my wife came home. I had her explain what all the settings were. There was an infrared setting on it. ...I have a corny sense of humor. A blind guy doing photos in a non-visible wavelength, that just cracked me up!

CS: Your process and your photos are so meticulous and ordered that it's obvious you have a particular vision in mind. Tell me about that.

PE: Vision is a slow process. Babies, when they are learning to see, don't fully comprehend what their eyes are bringing to them. Sighted people, if they're sick or preoccupied, are not getting all the data from what they're seeing. So getting vision from sound is like low resolution detail. As I sit in the room I'm in right now, I can hear the clock going off. The sound's bouncing off the walls; I can tell exactly where my dog is; hear the arms on the couch. Sound paints an image. It does give you the details of your surroundings.

CS: Did you research sound or you just figured this all out from your own experience?

PE: From my own experience. Now there are fancy studies on how the brain works and how blind people can do this and that. It's pretty much documented. I was just going by the fear of blindness on my own. Once I realized and I was so quickly able to adapt, I figured, "I know I'm going to go blind. I don't want to go blind. How can I provide a mind's eye image?"

When I walk upstairs now, I don't count the stairs; I listen. When I get to the landing at the top, I hear the opening. I used to teach martial arts. Learning to spar at full speed is a very good test of how fast can you change the sound into an image, because if you don't do it fast enough, you're going to get tagged.

CS: How do you know if your work turns out the way you'd like it to?

PE: Think of the process broken into two sides: The event and the product. As I build the image, it's in my mind's eye, so I know when to stop. I know what I've done by sound and touch. I know where I was and where everything is. I develop the film. I take the picture. I do the contact sheets. Then I get some feedback. It could have a technical problem, say, I left the lens cap on and there's nothing there and if I brought it to the lab and said, "I want this to be two feet by two feet." I'd be throwing money away. So, this is economics. I listen to a description and match it up with my memory. And so, did I get what I intended to get?

CS: So you're matching that feedback to the image you have in your mind and that you want to project.

PE: Right. I'm looking for confirmation. I let the people talk. It's a gift that they're giving me. Feedback is a gift. Communication is a gift. And so, I let them speak as much as they want. Some people go like, "Oh, this is really scary. I wouldn't want this in my house." Even a negative response I think of as a gift. ... I've got a whole bunch of work that never has been printed. People either like [my work] or they really don't.

CS: The images I saw are really fascinating. One is called "Stations" and the other is "Cathedral." Were they made while church services were going on?

PE: "Stations" was not. There were a few people in the church, but they weren't in the photo. "Cathedral" was done during Christmas Mass. There was a whole lot of work that went into that. I did a film test to figure out how much light was needed. Everything that I could touch, as far as my hands would go, I touched. I memorized the layout of the church. I know the sequence of a Mass. I know when what happens...

The parishioners weren't too pleased that I was setting up to shoot and I knew they wouldn't be. I wore my best clothes -- coat and tie. I washed the dog. (I had a beautiful black German shepherd then.) I also had the knowledge that Father Anthony was a friend of mine and he supports what I do.

A few parishioners came, and they said, "You can't do this." And I said, "Yeah, I did it last year," which was true. And they went away. Then they came back and said, "You can't use a flash in here." I said, "No problem, I never use a flash." They went away. And then, they said, "Do you have permission to do this?" And I said, "Yes, from above."

If you think about it -- the Franciscan Church -- its mission is to help the poor and disenfranchised. A blind person who has learned a method to see, who is more disenfranchised than that? Who should they support? They went to [Father Anthony] and I think he just said, "Leave Pete alone." When Communion came up, Father Anthony came [off] the altar. He came to my wife and I, served us Communion and then went back up and served the rest [of the] probably 800 people there.

CS: That sends a message of affirmation.

PE: Exactly. He was teaching the parish.

CS: What were you trying to communicate?

PE: The Spirit in a church. I had tried to find a way to show the Holy Spirit. It's very elusive. And so, this isn't a direct attempt for the Holy Spirit, but it's a direct attempt to show spiritual feeling in the church.

CS: And the "Stations" image. What were you going for there?

PE: This is a little bit more controversial. If you look at the guy's feet, he's wearing duck boots. The Catholic Church is having a lot of problems right now. There is a lot of controversy. The duck boots are for walking through the muck and mire of controversy. Remember I have a corny sense of humor!

CS: Yeah. Now, I have to look at that again, because you really do. Are you Catholic?

PE: I don't know.

CS: Were you raised Catholic?

PE: Yes.

CS: What are you working on right now?

PE: I'm working on a series. It's a multiple exposures. What I'm doing is I'm showing the sighted world with people ghosting out and cars whizzing around, and then, in my studio, I'm dropping in these kind of wild figures.... I'm trying to show how it feels to be a blind person in the sighted world.

If you think about it, as I'm around people, I can hear them. I can place them. But, since I can't see them, they could be spirits. They could be an apparition. ... And so, some of the misinformation or misinterpreted information, I let that go into my photos. Even when I was sighted, if I was preoccupied or sad, I wasn't getting the same data from my vision as I was if I was happy and very attentive.

One time I was at a crosswalk and the light changed and the guy standing behind me started yelling, "Go, go, go!" I wouldn't move and he started to step out around me and stepped as if he was going to step into the street. I reached forward and grabbed his shoulder and yanked him back. A car whizzed in front of him, and he went, "Oh." And, he didn't thank me for saving his life or anything.

CS: Well, I want to thank you for inviting me into your world and the fascinating world of blind photography. You have much to teach those of us whose sight is limited by our vision.

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