“I’ve managed to break a few boundaries along the way”: Meet the blind photographer who captured this year’s Paralympians
Persistence. Just one of the words which can be used to sum up Ian Treherne, the Essex-based photographer who took the pictures of this year’s Paralympians and who also happens to be blind.
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 31 August 2021
“I had a late one last night... working, you know how it is,” he reveals. “I’m only just out of my student days so a ‘late one’ for me means I was very drunk at the pub,” I reply. This is how I embarrassingly start my conversation with the photographer Ian Treherne. I’m embarrassed because Ian is so cool and collected. Luckily he finds my blunder funny. I swiftly move on.
Ian is a blind photographer; he has a visual impairment and is passionate about image making. He was born profoundly deaf and since a young age he’d always experienced a sense of isolation. He found a sense of joy in drawing and sketching, something that could keep him focused, a joy which translated into painting and “anything creative, whether it’s music, books, cinema”. Ian was obsessed with cinematography as a young man which he tried to incorporate into still photography. “I picked up a digital camera in 2009, but I used to take snap pictures with my little £10 film camera that I had. This is pre-internet, pre-Instagram, but I had already been told I was going blind by this date. So I had this obsession with capturing moments or collecting memories.”
Ian has a magical quality; maybe it’s because we’re both Pisces as we later discover, but I feel profoundly calm and authentic in his presence (Oh god… am I fan-girling?). “I remember seeing a couple of photographers at my local pub when I went to watch music,” he tells me when I ask how he got into photography. “I remember looking back at their screens and thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s amazing what you can achieve.’ I wanted to have a go. Over the past ten years I’ve just been practicing and pushing myself, trying to improve.
“One thing I've been told recently is that I'm a very persistent photographer. No one’s ever described me like that before! When you’re blind, you’re up against challenges every day, all the time, so it's something I have to work really hard at, and somehow I’ve managed to break a few boundaries along the way.”
I wonder what kind of responses Ian gets when he tells people he's a blind photographer. “I was embarrassed by my blindness, it's not something I told people,” he explains. “It was only really in the last decade that I started to become more comfortable in telling people, ‘I’m actually really blind’. I don't really fit into the typical idea of what a blind person looks like. And that’s the reason why I never told people about my disability. All my life, I’ve not belonged in any box. So I realised, maybe it’s time to create my own boxes.
“The box that I’m being put in is only based on seven per cent of people in the UK. There are people that are totally blind, in total darkness. That's the universal idea of what a blind person is, but that’s only seven per cent of us, so it’s a really small number. There’s another 93 per cent of people that have been questioned as to why they’re holding a white cane whilst looking at their phone.”
For the Paralympics, Ian wanted to show us how different people can be. Although representation for those with disabilities is still not where we hope it would be, it is steadily increasing. “When people talk about how ‘nothing’s changed’ or ‘nothing’s improved’, I know it has. To think what the youngsters are doing now, I think you've got a great platform and they are so inspiring, they’re inspiring me. I’m grateful for the younger generation for taking the bull by the horns. They’ve helped me immensely to get where I am now.”
Ian photographs in high contrast black and white so that he can see the images. But the most important reason why he shoots in black and white is because of his long-standing passion for noir films made in the 1950s. “I love that cinematic feel. That's the main reason why I work in black and white. It’s about going back to my first love as a kid, Charlie Chaplin.”
Ian loves shapes, lines, and architecture. He uses these elements as a foundation upon which he looks to highlight his subject’s expressions, “what they’re portraying in their face. I always want people to look, not arrogant, but confident, strong, and a dose of cool.” This is something he focused on heavily with Ellie Simmonds’ portrait in the swimming pool. To evoke this ‘cool’ from his subjects, he likes to connect with people and have real communication, even if it's just a few words.
Having always been “super shy” and “incredibly awkward” – which I don’t know if I really believe given our interaction so far – Ian tells me that going up to someone to take their photo is still a bit nerve-wracking but he tries to find common ground before shooting them, even if he only has a few minutes with them. When he was shooting runner Kadeena Cox, he Googled her and found out they had the same birthday so he used this to break the ice and make the experience a little less daunting for the both of them. This confirms my totally unbiased suspicion that people born in March are the best people.
“Time pressure,” Ian responds when I ask him about the challenges he faced on this shoot. “And really keeping out of the way of the film being made,” he continues. “I can’t rely on just being in one place. I guess that’s where that persistence comes in. I need to be constantly watching my subject and moving around, even when they’re not doing anything, because you never know when a little moment might occur. With Ellie, her head was just literally in one of the square tiles at the pool for a split second, it aligned perfectly, and then it disappeared forever. It’s just about looking, watching, observing, whilst trying to be as professional as possible.”
David Smith was “really cool” the photographer beams. The athlete had lots of chaotic things going on at the same time around him, Ian tells me, so when he came to photograph him, he decided to look for a changing room or a room that was empty, away from all the filming crew and capture a few moments of calm.
Ian says that he enjoys making people question how he can be both blind and a photographer, he likes “hurting their brains. I’m just super happy that I can inspire other people to pick up the camera and tell themselves, ‘I’m allowed to do this,’ because I know people feel like they’re not allowed to do it.” Paralympians, in his eyes, are superhuman: “bloody brilliant”. They’re showing us, he explains, that with a certain level of commitment, practice and dedication, you can really achieve what it is that you want to do.
The images were commissioned by Channel 4’s creative department, 4Creative, and will be used throughout its campaign over the course of the Paralympics’ broadcasting, to culminate on 5 September.
Ian Treherne: Ellie Simmonds (Copyright © 4Creative, 2021)
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.