Photographer and author Aylette Jenness uses assistive technology to connect, pursue her interests and enjoy the beauty of her surroundings

Aylette Jenness at her home

Aylette Jenness at her home in Wellfleet, MA. (Photo by Howard Karren via Wellfleet Wicked Local)

This week, we had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning author and photographer Aylette Jenness.  At 87 years old, Aylette is still writing, relentlessly dedicated to her craft despite progressive vision loss.

Aylette’s work has brought her all over the world.  Back in the early 1960s, Aylette and her family spent time in Alaska, living in a remote village and studying the lives of Native Americans.  Later that same decade, the Jenness family ventured to Nigeria, getting to know the people who lived at the edge of Lake Kainji in the village of Yelwa.  The lake was formed in 1968 after the construction of the Kainji Dam, displacing thousands of villagers who were forced to resettle.  At the same time, a civil war was raging in southern Nigeria.  Yet Aylette’s photos and writings capture a peaceful, productive, and multiethnic society in the Yelwa region.

During her time in Nigeria, Aylette took over 2,000 photographs, which eventually became the source of inspiration for her book, Along the Niger River: An African Way of Life.  More recently, her photo documentary was revived in an exhibit presented by the Wellfleet Council on Aging.  Aylette has also made the photos available as a resource to museums and educational institutions through her website, A Time in Nigeria.

Fisherman casting a net on the Kainji Lake

Fisherman casting a net on the Kainji Lake, Kainji Reservoir region, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0505 (Aylette Jenness via Smithsonian Institution)

Woman sitting at a loom in Nigeria, 1967-1969

Woman sitting at a loom in Nigeria, 1967-1969 (Aylette Jenness via A Time in Nigeria)

Aylette Jenness at her home in Nigeria

Aylette Jenness at her residence, Yelwa, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0123 (Smithsonian Institution)

Aylette has published 11 books over the span of her career.  Some of her other works include In Two Worlds, which looks at the effects of modern technology on the remote Alaskan village where she once lived, Families, A Celebration of Diversity, Commitment, and Love, and Come Home with Me:  A Multicultural Treasure Hunt, both written during her 24-year tenure at the Boston Children’s Museum.  Through her development of programs, exhibitions, workshops, and curriculum at the museum, Aylette became a pioneer and leader in promoting ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.

Book cover for In Two Worlds: A Yu'pik Eskimo Family by Aylette Jenness Book cover for Families: A Celebration of Diversity, Commitment, and Love by Aylette Jenness

Unfortunately, Aylette was diagnosed with a type of macular degeneration known as Stargardt’s disease in her 50s.  Stargardt’s is a genetic eye disorder causing vision loss over time.  It affects the macula, which is the small area of tissue near the center of the retina lining the back of the eye.  The macula is responsible for sharp central vision, critical for tasks such as driving and reading.  In Aylette’s experience, vision loss started out gradual, and picked up speed later in life.

In spite of this setback, Aylette has remained independent and productive by putting technology into practice.  She met Stu Flom, AdaptiVision’s founder and president, when she purchased her first Optelec video magnifier.  At the time, Aylette was no longer able to read.  She appreciated Stu’s positive, warm demeanor as he introduced the device.  It turned out to be life-changing, enabling her to read once again.

Elderly man sitting with twine in Nigeria, 1967-1969

Elderly man sitting with twine in Nigeria, 1967-1969 (Aylette Jenness via A Time in Nigeria)

 

 

 

 

“Like this old man, I am living with diminished vision. Yet, like him, I have work to do.”

— Aylette Jenness, A Time in Nigeria

 

 

 

 

 

Aylette uses screen-reader software on her computer, and, in 2013, she decided she needed a new desktop magnifier with text-to-speech capability.  She remarked how living on Cape Cod can sometimes be isolating and how having an in-home product demonstration was a huge help.  She remains very grateful to Stu for traveling to her home on the Cape with the Optelec ClearView+ Speech, which she still uses daily for reading, paying bills, note-taking, and correspondence.

Recently, Stu met with Aylette once again to show her a new wearable product, the AceSight VR.  The device has given Aylette a newfound appreciation for the beauty of her surroundings on the Cape, which she noted were visible with the AceSight even in dim lighting conditions.  She has also attended concerts with the device and looks forward to using it at more events in the future once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Newcomb Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, MA

Newcomb Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, MA (David Weintraub via Fine Art America)

You can learn more about Aylette’s life, career, and experience with vision loss through her forthcoming memoir, Sometime a Clear Light, A Woman’s Journey through the Arctic, Nigeria, and Life.  The book will be released and available for purchase on Amazon in September 2021.

Author Information

By Bethany Wyshak. Reviewed by Stuart Flom.

A lighting industry specialist, Stu Flom worked at Dolan-Jenner, a leader in fiberoptic lighting, for 15 years before launching his own company in 1994. As product manager, Stu helped find lighting solutions for clients in such diverse areas as photography, microscopy, robotics and automotive manufacturing. He was also involved in supplying the fiberoptics illuminating the Hope Diamond exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. A member of the International Society for Optics & Photonics (SPIE), Stu was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and is the author of several publications, including Integrating Optical Fibers in Machine Vision (Proceedings), Designing Fiber Optic Lighting for Machine Vision (Society of Manufacturing Engineers), and Light Up with Fiber Optics (Vision). Prior to his work in lighting, Stu was a special education teacher. Stu’s expertise in lighting and background in education form the backbone of his company. As AdaptiVision’s founder and president, Stu is dedicated to applying advanced lighting technology to assist people struggling with low vision, teaching them how to use technology to achieve greater independence.

Sources

Elkin, E. (2013, March 1). Aylette Jenness – Nauset Neighbors. Nauset Neighbors. https://www.nausetneighbors.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=502670&module_id=132370

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Kainji Lake | lake, Nigeria. https://www.britannica.com/place/Kainji-Lake

Jenness, A. (n.d.). A Time in Nigeria. A Time in Nigeria. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from http://www.atimeinnigeria.com/a-time-in-nigeria.html

Karren, H. (2019, April 5). Aylette Jenness’ everlasting vision, at the Wellfleet COA in April. Wellfleet Wicked Local. https://wellfleet.wickedlocal.com/entertainment/20190405/aylette-jenness-everlasting-vision-at-wellfleet-coa-in-april

Orelove, E. (2019, September 20). Pioneering Women Photographers of Africa: Aylette Jenness. Smithsonian Institution. https://si-siris.blogspot.com/2019/09/pioneering-women-photographers-of.html

Stargardt macular degeneration: MedlinePlus Genetics. (n.d.). MedlinePlus. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/stargardt-macular-degeneration/

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