Wayan is over sixty-five years of age and lives on the Indonesian island of Bali. Nobody is entirely sure of his exact age, even Wayan himself is vague about it. Counting birthdays obviously hasn’t been a priority for him. He’s worked all his life in a rural community and has raised a family. In recent years Wayan’s eyesight has deteriorated, finally reaching the point where he is clinically blind.
Wayan suffers from a common problem. He has cataracts in his eyes, the lenses have clouded gradually until the point where they are almost completely opaque, shutting Wayan off from the visual world. He arrives at the mobile eye clinic in Jambayan accompanied and aided by his adult grandson, who guides him patiently by the arm into the University building where the clinic has been set up for the day.
I spent a day working with the staff of the John Fawcett Foundation, meeting just a few of the many thousands of Indonesian people who receive medical attention each year through the work of the Foundation.
His grandson explains to Wayan that I have asked permission to take photographs and Wayan nods his agreement. I quickly appreciate just how much I rely on eye-contact when I make portraits and realise how redundant my encouraging smile is to Wayan. He cannot see me. It’s a sobering realisation and I am gripped by my imagination as I try to understand what life must be like for Wayan.
Wayan and I do not share a common language and my usual method of communication: body language and theatrical gestures, is useless here. So Wayan and I remain frustratingly disconnected. I assume that the rest of the world must seem like this to him, remote, distant and removed. I place what I hope is a reassuring hand on his arm, hesitating as I pull-back from an instinctive motion to show him his own portrait in the LCD screen of my camera. I show his grandson instead, who graciously gives a smiling nod of approval.
According to the John Fawcett Foundation, there are 3 million people in Indonesia who are blind as a result of cataracts and, as the Foundation points out, cataract blindness is easily treatable in the vast majority of cases.
It is painstaking work that requires the steadiest of hands and complete concentration. Here, Dr. Wayan Gde Dharyata, completes his sixth operation of the morning. Despite the concentration required, he is so practised in this procedure that he is able to chat cheerfully with his colleagues and with the patient. I ask how many of these operations he has completed and he laughs, “I am not sure. Many, many operations”. Back at the John Fawcett Foundation later in the day I ask how many operations Dr. Wayan has performed. Careful records are kept which reveal that he has removed over 16,000 cataracts. I would consider it something of a miracle to restore the sight to one blind person. If the experience of watching a cataract surgery left me feeling somewhat awe-struck then the thought of 16,000 eyes seeing again leaves me speechless.
In the last 20 years, over 30,000 people like Wayan have received sight-restoring operations through the John Fawcett Foundation.