First Sight

Photographs & Text by Brent Stirton

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Anita Singh and her sister Sonia both live in a small, rural village in West Bengal, India. It is one of the poorest regions in the world. Until very recently, both sisters were blind. Sonia and Anita were born with congenital cataracts, dooming them to only the faintest awareness of light and dark. This is a curable condition if cataract surgery is performed while the girls are young enough for the brain and eye to reconnect and recalibrate towards sight, as most people understand it.
There are 20 million blind people in the world, 12 million of them are in India. 70% of that collective blindness is curable; poverty remains the real reason for a lifetime in the dark. Most families cannot afford the travel costs to go for surgery, let alone the surgery itself. An average cataract operation in India costs in the region of $300, totally accessible to most Westerners but at least 3 years salary for a rural worker in India. As a result Sonia and Anita are both totally dependent on their parents and relatives, a fact that places strain on relationships and limits the options of their parents in breaking free from this cycle of poverty. Sonia and Anita both attend school in their village but they only go there so that they can receive the lunchtime meal. This is also the only time that their parents can work in the fields without having to worry constantly about the safety of the girls.
There is an organization in New York called Wonderwork. It’s an apt name; their sole mission is to aid those who cannot help themselves by raising funding to support surgeons leading lives with the sole intention of providing surgery for the poorest of the poor. Recently Sonia and Anita were identified as suitable candidates for cataracts surgery at an outreach camp for the Blind. As a result their lives and the lives of all those around them will change forever. This essay is the story of this change. It is designed to show what it meant for the girls to live in darkness, to show their journey to the simple miracle of cataract surgery. It then attempts to show their wonder as they begin to experience their movement out of darkness into the world of form and light, a world most of us take totally for granted.
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