You might have seen photographer Andrew Follows around Melbourne with a camera slung over one arm, but chances are he didn’t see you. That’s because Andrew is legally blind.
It’s a cool Melbourne evening when I first lay eyes on the talented photographer. With his Guide Dog Eamon in tow, Andrew smiles as the flash of a camera lights up his face. He is seemingly comfortable in the limelight, despite generally being the one behind the camera.
We are gathered at No Vacancy art gallery for the launch of Andrew’s Fringe Festival exhibition Soul Mates, a celebration of his love of photography and an ode to the canine who has allowed him to pursue this passion professionally.
Eamon has been Andrew’s partner in crime for the past 10 years and has allowed him to live a life he never thought possible. In an effort to show his gratitude to his soul mate Eamon, Andrew created the fundraising exhibition, a collection of images each starring Eamon with a different person.
Sportspeople, comedians, philanthropists and Guide Dog trainers, to name a few, were photographed for the exhibition, with each photo representing a unique connection between human and animal.
But how does Andrew manage to capture the essence of relationships he can’t even see? It comes down to imagination, knowing his equipment and of course, many years of practice.
“It’s challenging because technically you’ve got to have good eyesight to be a photographer, so a lot of it does come down to imagination,” Andrew explains.
Andrew suffers from a condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa, which means he has no sight in his right eye and tunnel vision in his left. Eventually, Andrew will lose what little sight he does has and become completely blind.
If you think about the challenges Andrew faces, things fully sighted people may take for granted, you begin to understand how impressive his story really is. While now he is a great inspiration to others, it was only several years ago that Andrew became quite disheartened by how his low vision was affecting everyday life.
“I was making excuses not to go out and I was becoming a hermit which wasn’t me,” he says. After a reluctant trip to an eye doctor, who was astounded at his poor sight, Andrew realised it was time to make the call to Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV).
“Guide Dogs said once you get a dog you’ll never be home and I laughed and thought ‘yeah right’,” Andrew tells me. Little did he know that only a few years later his life would have completely transformed.
In 2006, Eamon and Andrew were officially paired up and began to develop the strong bond they have today. The two have an emotional connection built on mutual trust and reliance, which is essential for Eamon to support Andrew in everyday life. “He knows what I’m doing before I do,” Andrew says.
With a newfound confidence thanks to Eamon, Andrew went out and bought his first digital camera in 2006. “That opened a whole new world; I didn’t have to print the photos to see what I was capturing so by taking lots of photos and then putting the card through the TV, I could zoom in and see the colours and textures for myself,” Andrew says.
This inspired Andrew to take his photography to a more professional level. He enrolled in a 12-month course with photographer Martin Bonnici during which he learned the ins and outs of photography. Martin was an inspiration to Andrew and taught him everything from how to use the settings on his camera, to how to put an exhibition together.
“In the end of 2008 I had my very first exhibition and it was a sell out. It was brilliant, it was absolutely brilliant,” Andrew tells me with a smile. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, composing a number of exhibitions including one at the Edinburgh Arts Festival in 2012.
Funnily enough, it was on this six-week visit to the UK that the idea of Soul Mates was born. While in Edinburgh, Andrew met Adam Hills and after a show they started chatting.
“I got a photo of Adam and Eamon together and then I forgot about it for a year or so. It wasn’t until I revisited the UK shots that it just came to me – I thought let’s do something with famous people,” Andrew explains.
The next step was nearly two years worth of networking, talking to managers, photographing and editing. While it might sound straightforward, there were many challenges along the way, one of which was working with Eamon.
“There were times when he would just not do what I wanted him to,” Andrew laughs. How did he get around this? “Patience,” says Andrew, “and a lot of biscuits!”
One of the most important parts of Soul Mates was for Andrew to have each image reflect the personality of the subject. “I wanted to have the correct postures to represent that person – not the dog, but the person. That was my mindset.”
For example, photographs of Lady Primrose Potter, an Australian philanthropist, and Jamie Gardiner, lawyer and human rights activist, are quite formal. They sit above Eamon on a chair, while he sits on the floor next to them.
In contrast, photographs of comedian Mick Molloy and Guide Dog trainer Justin Marshall are far more relaxed and playful.
There are also little secrets behind each photo. Take the one of Justin Marshall. In this image Eamon is affectionately licking Justin’s face as they lie on the ground together. While the two definitely had a connection, Andrew lets me in on a little secret – Justin also had a little biscuit in his mouth for this shot.
Each photograph elicits recollections like this for Andrew; they take him back to the moment he captured the image: “They’re all good and they all have special meaning to me. Different scenarios, different people, different meaning,” he says.
As a fundraising exhibition, Soul Mates has been incredibly successful in raising awareness and funds for Guide Dogs. GDV Community Fundraising Coordinator, Caroline Pearce, says it provided the community with a unique insight into being vision impaired.
“The exhibition helped to raise awareness by highlighting the bond between a Guide Dog and their handler. It shows that low vision and blindness don’t restrict or limit someone’s ability to realise their goals,” Ms Pearce says.
In mid October, Andrew proudly presented a cheque to Guide Dogs Victoria for over $4000, generated by the sale of photographs and souvenir booklets, pens and mugs. This money will go towards fundraising kits and further education programs.
Ms Pearce says the money will assist in teaching children in particular about Guide Dog etiquette, living with low vision and social responsibility.
Fundraising for Guide Dogs is something Andrew is incredibly passionate about. After the organisation helped him to find Eamon, he is determined to ensure others with visual impairments can connect with a soul mate of their own.
“Eamon’s opened doors and he’s given me the independence I’ve always wanted,” Andrew smiles. “If I didn’t have him none of this would be happening. I am so grateful.”