‘My eyes are in my heart’: Blind photographer Joao Maia covers Rio Paralympics 2016
Rio de Janeiro: Joao Maia is one of many talented photographers covering the Rio Paralympics, but with a twist: he can’t see what he shoots.
“You don’t need to see to take photographs. My eyes are in my heart,” he said at the Engenhao athletics stadium.
Somehow the blind photographer pulls off what might seem like an impossible task. His pictures have magazine quality, seemingly taken by a normally sighted professional.
Maia, 41, lost his sight when he was 28 after suffering uveitis, an inflation of the eye. It took a year, but finally he was left unable to see anything more than shapes and some colors when he is close enough.
Working as a postman in Sao Paulo, Maia learned to use a cane and took classes in Braille. He also began to become interested in photography.
“Photography is about sensitivity. I think it’s marvelous to be able to show how I perceive the world, how I see it, sense it,” he said.
With a camera in one hand and cane in the other, Joao joined the sports photographers on the tribune at the Paralympic stadium this week.
He’d go practice in sports photography during the warm-up events staged over the last year for the Rio Olympics, where the small crowds were perfect for allowing him to concentrate on using his sense of hearing.
His first thought was to photograph the track races, but he found the scale and distances too hard.
“When I am close enough I feel the runners’ heartbeats, their steps,” he said, “and then I’m ready to take the picture. But with noise and distance I find it difficult.”
Although he started with a traditional camera when he first became serious in 2008, he now uses a latest generation smartphone, which he says has excellent focusing.
Helping him are the people he calls his borrowed “eyes” — Leonardo Eroico and Ricardo Rojas, whose Mobgrafia initiative promotes art photography using cellphones. Maia and another photographer, who is confined to a wheelchair, are documenting the Paralympics with their encouragement.
“Without them I could do nothing. They help me with the editing, which I could never do, and they put my pictures up on social networks,” he said. The blind photographer’s Instagram account @joaomaiafotografo now has some 1,800 followers.
Maia turned away from the track shots and found satisfaction instead at the long jump pit, where the small dimensions and close-up dramas are perfect. But he is always trying to improve.
“This is good. They’re raking the sand, right?” he asks, listening carefully. “Have I got the zoom right?… Tell me when they start to run so that I am ready.”
Then as the athletes come flying in, he takes striking picture after picture.
One gets Le Fur wrapped in a French flag, with just her prosthetic leg emerging. Another shows Dutch athlete Marlene van Gansewinkel and Britain’s Stefanie Reid talking while waiting for the end of the event.
“It’s not just action I want to capture but the intimacy,” he says.
Maia once tried to get into Paralympic sport himself, but found the athletic level too high.
Now, living on his pension from the post office, he says sport is truly “everything for me and now I follow it with a camera.”
Next up, he hopes: the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. “At least this is a dream,” he says.