Photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton met the above group of pale-skinned friends in matching pink shirts in West Bengal, India, in 2014. They suffer from albinism, a congenital condition that affects pigment production and often causes problems with eyesight. "They probably have about 5% of their sight so they're legally blind, but they can make out shapes," says Brent. "The condition makes you susceptible to skin cancer and ultimately makes you lose your sight – a double tragedy."
The picture was shot in the Vivekananda Mission Asram, which has an eye hospital and a school for the blind – one of few schools in India of its type. And the image is just one strand of a much broader body of work called State of Blindness, the bulk of which Brent shot on assignment for National Geographic.
"I've photographed blindness in various ways over the years. In 2013, I went to India and spent time with two blind sisters, Anita and Sonia Singh, as they underwent surgery, which resulted in some degree of sight for both girls. Then National Geographic came to me and said we're working on a story about a cure for blindness, looking at where we are in terms of technology and how far medicine has come."
This story took him all around the world, from Namibia to Peru and back to India. Although he encountered cutting-edge medical procedures, such as stem cell therapies and external sensors that are implanted into the eyes, Brent came to realise that often the more rudimentary procedures could be the most impactful.
"There are over 40 million blind people in the world today – and most of them don't need to be blind," Brent says. "Glaucoma, trachoma, cataracts, physical injuries and many other eye complaints can be treated if you catch them early on. In the West, we have access to reliable eye care. But much of the world doesn't have that – not only can some people not afford the operation, they can't even afford the bus fare to get to the hospital. It must be a terrible thing to find your world darkening or to watch your child or your wife lose their sight and to be impotent in that situation."
Blindness as a social issue really hammered home to Brent how reliant he is on his own sight. "As a photographer, my eyesight is how I make my livelihood, so the idea of losing it is alarming – but my sight is no more precious to me than it is to you. It's interesting to confront the notion that you might lose it – and if you do, you need to see how these guys have coped. It comes down to triumph of the human spirit."
As a photographer, my eyesight is my livelihood so the idea of losing it is alarming.
Throughout the course of the project, Brent got to know medical professionals who have devoted themselves to treating poor people in their home countries. "I worked with a woman called Dr Helena Ndume, who is a Namibian surgeon. She lived through the Angolan war, she was an active member of the liberation movement in her country, then studied eye surgery in East Germany because she decided that was what her country needed," he says.
Brent met another eye doctor, Dr Asim Sil, when following the Singh sisters in India. Since 1989, Dr Sil and his team have brought mobile eye clinics to remote, impoverished areas of India. He runs the hospital at Vivekananda Mission Asram. "He'll do eye clinics via boats,” says Brent. “And if he finds children whose blindness can't be treated, he'll often try to get them to the school so that their quality of life can improve.
"In India, most blind people are condemned to a life of begging – a small, unpleasant life. The school represents a rare investment in blind people."
Brent has visited the school three times since 2014 and plans to return this year. Each time he spends four or five days there, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, observing and documenting people's lives before taking formal portraits of the young people. "I don't want to disrupt the school, I'm just interested in trying to make pictures that are quietly effective," he explains.
Taking a portrait of someone who can't see is challenging. If the subject has lost their sight over time, they might have seen a photograph before, but if they have never been able to see, Brent has to work harder in order to explain what he is doing. "I have to employ their frame of reference," he says.
"I often use the sense of touch to explain. I say, when you touch your father or your mother, you have a feeling of who that person is. This camera is a machine that allows you to take what you're experiencing with your sense of touch and communicate it in a different way."
Brent has got to know the albino boys as they've grown older, and he looks forward to a day when they might leave the school and find fulfilling lives and jobs in wider Indian society. But how do they feel about being photographed? "They're as curious about me as I am about them. I'm paying attention to these guys and that's not always common. Lots of blind people are used to being sidelined, not to being highlighted."