Utne's Readers

Visionary Photographer Tony Deifell

| May / June 2005

Tony Deifell's phone rang late one night in 1998, and rather than let the machine pick up (as was customary at such an hour) he decided to answer it. To his shock, a child immediately demanded, 'Why do you do what you do?!'

To his greater shock, Deifell, a 36-year-old Harvard MBA, activist, photographer, consultant, teacher, and leader of a successful nonprofit, didn't know how to answer the question.

'I had become good at talking to funders and writing grants with big theories and detailed plans,' he says. 'But I had lost touch with the simplicity behind all this complexity. I had to dig deep inside [that night] and try to explain to a 12-year-old why I ran an anti-racism program, and why it was important -- in the most essential ways.'

The late-night call from a stranger prompted Deifell to pose the question to others and chronicle their answers with photography (www.wdydwyd.com). It also forced him to examine his own place in the world. That's no easy task when you've studied business and divinity simultaneously, as he has, or your career straddles the often-contrary intersection between for-profit and nonprofit business, as his does. He felt like he was always on a cusp, and he soon came to refer to his passions as 'the power of paradox.' It's an idea clearly embodied in Deifell's newest endeavor, a book of photographs by visually impaired children titled Sound Shadows, which is due out from Chronicle Books in 2007.



The book has been brewing in Deifell since 1992, when he decided to find out whether vision was necessary for photography to be meaningful. 'As a photographer, I was afraid of losing my eyesight, as a pianist would fear losing some fingers,' he says.

After teaching art to blind children in North Carolina for six years, Deifell discovered that not only was sight unnecessary for creating photographs, but the images produced by his students were uniquely powerful. The children shot them by being attentive to their remaining senses -- feeling their subjects, listening carefully to their surroundings -- and viewers take away both an impression of how the blind 'see' the world and new ways in which we might take each other in.