EXCLUSIVE: Legally blind photographer praises God for her art

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
Tammy Ruggles, a fine art photographer, takes high contrast black and white photos. | Tammy Ruggles

MAYSVILLE, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – When fine art photographer Tammy Ruggles takes a photo, she isn't always sure how it will turn out because she is legally blind.

With 20/400 vision, Tammy can only see blurry shapes, so she relies on the camera to capture what she cannot see. "Always with me is the idea that God is in nature, and that nature really illustrates God's hand in the universe and on our planet," Tammy told Christian Examiner in an exclusive interview.

Her favorite subjects are abstract things in nature—like hills, trees, and flowers, which she is attracted to because she sees best in high contrast. "I'm not a photographer who likes to explain the ideas of my photos to the viewer," the photographer added. "Everything is up for interpretation."

"Side of the Mountain" is one of Tammy Ruggles' favorite photos. | Tammy Ruggles

Tammy has a progressive blinding disease, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), that results in a gradual loss of vision as retinal cells deteriorate.

"I have some vision left," Tammy said. "I don't have as much as I used to, but I try to use what I have. I can make out familiar people if they are a few inches away. If not, forget about it."

She cannot recognize family or friends from just a couple of feet away unless they speak to her. But she has not let her severe visual impairment prevent her from experiencing the wonders of nature or practicing art photography.

Based in Kentucky, Tammy began photography in 2013. "I give the Ultimate Creator the glory for giving me the ability to create. I want others to see the Creator in my work, from spring flowers, to snow-covered hillside, to horses grazing in a field."

On a photo shoot, she uses a simple point-and-shoot Sony RX100 camera set on auto. If she didn't already use the camera's black and white setting, she will edit photos with the Silver FX software on a 47-inch computer screen.

"I have a strong attraction to the abstract, which allows the viewer to interpret an image in a variety of ways," Tammy said. She does take color photos but prefers black and white because the high contrast allows her to see more of her subject.

She usually takes a companion along on a photo adventure. Initially, the role of her helper was transportation, guidance, and observer to look for suitable subjects and help her frame a shot.

"But this didn't feel authentically like my own ideas and process, so I decided to just shoot what I could see, even if it was blurry, and choose my own pictures later," Tammy said.

Now that she has the few buttons on her camera memorized, she calls herself more "independent" on a shoot.

"Spring at Night" displays Tammy Ruggles' attraction to abstract designs in nature. | Tammy Ruggles

Tammy gives God all credit for her talents. Because they are a gift from God, "I needed to use the skills and talents I have to the best of my ability," Tammy said. "Since I feel God strongly in nature, these tend to be subjects I captured in finger paintings, photography, and poetry."

A variety of things inspired her to seek out a camera in 2013. She heard about how easy point-and-shoot camas were to use and wanted to find a new way to express her art with her limited vision. After watching a documentary about her "photography hero" Ansel Adams, she was sold.

She feels the relationship between art and faith is "closely knit," and worship is a common theme in her art. "Expressing art this way is a form of worship," she said. "Not worship of nature, but of the One who created it."

A favorite passage of Scripture is Hebrews 11:1—"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."

Tammy has loved photography for years but feared her vision would prevent her from enjoying it again. Then she realized she needed to take up photography now "because my vision wasn't getting any better," she said. "I wanted to try it while I had some remaining vision."

She hopes her practice of photography will show others that God can bless given circumstance. "I would like to thank God for allowing me the opportunity to express myself in art, photography, and writing," she said.

To aspiring artists, she recommends, "Learn something about it, find subjects that appeal to you, and give it a try. Push yourself a little, and good things can happen."

Tammy's photos have been published in art magazines, literary journals, and photography publications like PhotoVoice, Graphis, IJ Review, LiftBump, Heartlight Magazine, Smart Photography, Orbis, LION (The Lion's Club), Oitzarisme, The Notebook, and others.

Her portfolio can be viewed online here.