I met Mick and Mike about a month ago quite by chance. They ran past my house as I was leaving for a day trip to Brighton with my mother. We were already in the car and about to drive off as they ran past; the moment I saw them I cut the engine and chased after them on foot.
As a young teenager our family took part in a sponsored bike ride for the RNIB. At the time we were a big cycling family and owned a tandem that my brother and I would sometimes race with my dad. We rode stoker (the person on the back) to his pilot. As part of the charity bike ride, my dad rode pilot to a blind stoker, as did many other people taking part, and the memory has always stuck with me. When I saw Mick run past, being guided by Mike, it resonated, and I knew it was too important a story to miss. I ended up photographing them both in the car park of the closed down pub opposite my house.
I rarely ask to do follow up shoots with people I’ve met spontaneously. I have tried a few times but the results are invariably no better than the ones taken ‘in the moment and in some cases they have been worse. I’ve learned that my work is at its best when it is spontaneous and in the moment (or perhaps it is me that is at his best in this situation). But Mick and Mike are local and the story is compelling so I felt I wanted to do a follow up.
Mick lost his sight 16 years ago as a result of a genetically inherited condition that can result in blindness in later life. His children and siblings are also carriers of the genetic marker, but only time will tell if they also end up losing their sight. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be to lose a faculty as significant as sight at any age but Mick seems to have embraced this desperately unfortunate outcome as if it were an opportunity to stick two fingers up at mother nature. In fabulous defiance of his condition, Mick only took up marathon running and triathlon after he lost his sight. He trains with Mike, as well as other members of Horsham Joggers, but it is with Mike he seems to have developed a particular bond. It is very apparent that they both get something profound from their engagement with each other; they run using a chord that they both hold so that they are ‘tethered’ together. Mike provides enough commentary to both guide Mick and paint mental pictures for him to help his orientation and his enjoyment.
I arranged to meet them in the local park at first light. It was cold and clear and I hoped that the mist and frost would add an extra dimension to the composition over the original portrait, which had been shot mid-morning on an otherwise bright but overcast day. I wanted to photograph them after they had been for a run partly because I wanted their body heat to be visible if possible and partly because I wanted their activity to be an authentic part of the composition. I also wanted their running attire, in particular their hi-vis vests, to be part of the composition. This was one of the elements that worked so well in the original; in addition to being very bright and visually arresting, the hi-vis jackets also told the story of their partnership without needing any additional explanation.
Photography, for me at least, is about looking and seeing; it’s about seeing the things we take for granted and the things we often miss because we are too busy or too preoccupied. When I set out to photograph Mick the irony of making a portrait of someone who is blind was not lost on me; if anything I wanted romantic irony to prick the viewer into reassessing the value of their own vision and to start trying to ‘see’ as well as look. So it was particularly ironic when having got home and downloaded the files from the shoot, that I noticed that the vests Mick and Mike had previously worn, and which marked each out as the ‘blind runner’ and the ‘guide for blind runner’, had somehow got mixed up. Mick was wearing the guide’s vest and Mike the blind runner’s.
How could I not seen this, in particular, how could I have not seen this while engaged in actively looking and seeing them, in photographing them? My first reaction was of incredible disappointment; the shoot was ruined and I would have to ask them to make this effort all over again (they started their run at 6.30am), something I wasn’t sure I could push my luck with. But then I reflected a little; the message about looking but not seeing, even when you think you are making the effort to see, is even more powerful. And there is an additional layer of romantic irony with the blind runner being the one who is now our guide; it is Mick, who despite his blindness undertakes incredible endeavours, who guides us and reminds us that our pursuits can always be noble and worthwhile irrespective of our (dis)ability.