Bill Sandberg and his wife, Audrey
Bill Sandberg was born with bilateral occipital lobe disorder. He’s legally blind, but he can see what’s straight ahead — just not the world around him. Despite that, one of his primary goals as a photographer was to shoot wildlife for Arizona Highways. Earlier this year, with some help from photographer Bruce D. Taubert, he crossed it off his list.
© Karen Shell
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By Kathy Ritchie
It’s a damp, gray day at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert. The forecast high is a brisk 54, but at 7:30 a.m., the temperature is barely skimming the 40-degree mark. It’s not exactly an ideal day to photograph great egrets and geese.
But that isn’t stopping Bill Sandberg.
Sandberg, 71, an aspiring photographer from Phoenix, stands less than 2 feet from the murky wetland with his Nikon D4 mounted to a tripod. Wearing a black windbreaker over a brown button-up sweater and a red-and-blue-striped shirt, he isn’t dressed for this kind of cold. His wife, Audrey, who is only slightly more bundled, stands to his left, holding a leash attached to their black Labrador retriever, Jazz. To Sandberg’s right is wildlife photographer and Arizona Highways contributor Bruce D. Taubert.
Despite the lousy weather, today might be one of the best days of Bill Sandberg’s life. He hopes to cross off two items from his bucket list: 1) Learn how to shoot wildlife; 2) Get published in Arizona Highways. What makes this seemingly ordinary scene remarkable is the fact that Sandberg is legally blind. He relies on Jazz, his seeing-eye dog, and his wife of 40 years to get around.
Sandberg is quiet, which is unusual for the normally talkative photographer. Turns out, he’s too cold and too nervous to say much of anything. The only sounds are chirping birds and the pitter-patter of raindrops as they hit the sand. An egret sits in the water, and Sandberg, with Taubert’s help, is about to make a photograph. He looks into the viewfinder and click, click, clicks.
Sandberg steps back to view the camera’s display screen. There are “blinkies” on the image, indicating that certain areas within his photograph are overexposed. Taubert, who volunteered to coach Sandberg after hearing about him from a colleague, fiddles with the buttons on the camera. He discovers it’s set to “automatic bracketing,” a preprogrammed function that allows the camera to take an underexposed image, an overexposed image and an image that’s correctly exposed. It’s not the right setting for this shoot. Once Taubert makes the necessary adjustments, Sandberg resumes photographing the egret.
Born with bilateral occipital lobe disorder, a condition that has robbed him of most of his peripheral vision, Sandberg can see what’s straight ahead — but he can’t see the world around him.
When Sandberg was a child in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, his doctors were unable to explain the cause of his condition. So, like any tough-as-nails New Yorker, he carried on, making minor adaptations to avoid tripping or falling through an open sidewalk cellar door.
“I walked a lot with my head down like I was depressed, but I wasn’t depressed,” Sandburg says. “It was so I could see where I was walking.”
Beyond that, he did “everything normal kids do.” He rode his bike, roller-skated and even played baseball. Sandberg credits his parents for his positive outlook on life. “They let me do what I wanted to do. They wanted me to live my life my way.”
And he did. When Sandberg decided to learn how to fly an airplane, he took lessons. When his friends climbed the almost-400-foot Verrazano-Narrows Bridge so they could photograph the view, he grabbed his camera and tagged along.
“We didn’t get all the way on top, but we were high enough that we were on the cables,” he says.
Because of his disorder, Sandberg thought photographing wildlife was impossible — he couldn’t clearly see his subject. A static landscape is one thing; a small, flittering object is something else altogether. But Audrey insisted, and, two years ago, she convinced her husband to take a trip to Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.
“She said, ‘I promise you a good picture if you come,’ ” Sandberg says. “I said, ‘How can you promise?’ ”
When the pair arrived, they waited until a butterfly settled down nearby. Audrey held out her arm in the direction of the butterfly; then, she placed the camera on her extended limb. Sandberg looked through the viewfinder, focused on the butterfly and clicked.
And so the “arm shot,” as Audrey calls it, was born.
More than two hours have passed since Sandberg took his first shot. Taubert asks him whether he’d like to continue photographing the egret. The rain is still coming down, and Sandberg, a little numb from the cold, decides to call it a day.
Taubert takes the camera off the tripod and gathers the gear. Meanwhile, Audrey threads her arm through the crook in Sandberg’s arm and guides him up the sloped bank.
On the slow walk back to the car, a much more confident Sandberg asks Taubert whether he’d go out with him again. Taubert is game.
“Bill realizes his limitations but refuses to give up,” Taubert says. “There’s something about that type of personality that’s quite impressive and inspiring.”
Later, at a nearby Starbucks, Sandberg digests his morning.
“I was very happy when I left there,” he says. “But I felt I could have done better — I should have been able to do better.”
Despite having left the preserve with several good shots, Sandberg isn’t cutting himself any slack. His bar is considerably higher than that of photographers with 20/20 vision, which means he’s going to keep photographing wildlife until he gets it.
In the meantime, he’s crossed one item off his bucket list. “My main goal since I was 19 was getting into Arizona Highways,” he says. “I’ve met my goal.”
The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is located at 2757 E. Guadalupe Road in Gilbert. For more information, call 480-503-6200 or visit www.riparianinstitute.org.
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