Utne’s Readers

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.

Deifell puts it another way: ‘It’s blind kids teaching the
sighted world how to see themselves better.’

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