There’s a secret behind Amy Hildebrand’s photography — a secret that I was never able to guess when we first met.
As she peered through her camera lens and snapped images of my boyfriend and me with ease, she asked us to share our memories. Eventually, she shared some of her own and her secret came out.
Hildebrand was born blind due to albinism, a rare hereditary disorder that prevents the body from making melanin, the substance that gives color to hair, skin and the iris of the eye. When the enzyme that is responsible for pigmentation doesn’t work properly during fetal development in the womb, it can impair the entire visual system.
In Hildebrand’s case, the defect was severe, causing complete blindness until an experimental treatment restored some of her sight.
She has vivid childhood memories of seeing the way the light hit her brother as he played on the floor, of the way she saw dust swirl around in her parents’ old house, of the way the light looked as she held her favorite blanket close to her face. Simple moments like those shaped what would become Hildebrand’s love of photography.
“I wanted to experience light in every single way that I could,” Hildebrand says. “[I wanted to] understand it and hold onto it — not just in my head, but to actually be able to hold any image in my hand and be able to say, ‘This is that moment; this is that memory.’”
After wearing contact lenses since infancy, Hildebrand was one of the first patients with albinism to undergo eye muscle surgery to improve the faulty ocular motor system.
For Hildebrand, the results were dramatic — the surgery restored her sight over time, although she is still considered legally blind as defined by the Social Security Administration (vision of 20/200 or less with the best lens correction possible; meaning a legally blind person would have to stand 20 feet from an object to see it with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet).
Hildebrand says using her camera as her eye helps ease her fears of losing her vision again someday.
“That’s what really set me into motion — trying to document memories because I didn’t know how long my vision would last, so I wanted to catch everything I could while I’m still able to see.”
Hildebrand went on to study photography in high school, then in college.
She now runs a photography business called Best Day Ever with her husband, Aaron, whom she met in their college darkroom.
“My vision has done nothing but enhance my experience with the medium,” Hildebrand says. “It’s helped me explore what sight really means to me.”
Hildebrand might see her vision as an advantage now, but there was a time when she hid it at all costs. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Hildebrand decided to share her secret with fans of her photography. She says she never anticipated what happened next.
Hildebrand’s journey went global after she was featured by ABC News and The Daily Mail. She received hundreds of emails per day from people all around the globe.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” she says, “and I guess it helped people do the same. That made saying something totally worth the risk.”
Hildebrand says she felt instantly connected with those who reached out to her.
“The human connection is all an artist really wants,” she says. “Sharing my story gave me that connection. It made me even more certain of the meaning behind our photography — it’s my way of capturing reality.”
Hildebrand doesn’t use Photoshop to alter any blemishes or scars in her photos because she prefers to capture reality.
“You get what really happened,” Hildebrand says of her photographs. “It might be through our vision, but that’s just as much of a reality.”
Hildebrand and her husband want to give their clients more than just photos; they strive to make a real connection with their clients as they photograph them.
“We want you to walk away with a meaningful experience more than anything,” Hildebrand says. “When you have the experience to attach to your photos, they become more valuable because you have memories and tangible evidence of those memories.”
Hildebrand says connecting with the people in front of her lens takes precedence over everything else.
“To us,” she says, “the photos are just a bonus.”
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