The Amazing Story of a Blind Professional Photographer and Rock Climber

Justin Salas was only 14 when he lost his sight almost completely and was declared legally blind. Now 22, the ambitious young man is a living example that nothing is impossible – even though he can’t see, Justin is a professional photographer and skilled rock climber.

Justin’s blindness wasn’t the result of an unfortunate accident or a sudden occurrence where he woke up one morning to find that he couldn’t see anymore. His eyesight had always been poor and he started wearing glasses when he was 5-years-old. But it wasn’t until his freshman year of high-school that his vision started deteriorating at a rapid pace. His glasses no longer helped and tests revealed that his optic nerves were dying, although the cause was a mystery for all the doctors he’d seen.


Photo: Justin Salas/Facebook

A doctor at the Dean McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City, one of the best eye clinics in the country, told Justin’s parents that the condition was psychological and he should just go home and relax. After a whole year of scans and blood tests, doctors gave him the ambiguous diagnosis of “optic neuropathy of unknown origin” and shattered his world when they told him it was incurable. Without the ability to do the things he most enjoyed, the young boy pulled away from the world. Some days he didn’t speak at all. He just stood in front of an oversized computer screen, because if he leaned very close, he could still make out the blurry outlines of familiar shapes and letters.

But one day, his close friend Beau Johnson asked him if he wanted to ride a bike. Salas’ peripheral vision was still intact and what he couldn’t see in front of him, Johnson alerted him about. Justin’s family called him his “seeing-eye person”, because he let the blind boy know about approaching cars and obstacles in his path, giving him enough time to swerve.


Photo: Justin Salas/Facebook

Then, another friend invited Justin to a rock climbing gym, telling him that “You don’t have to see to climb, you only have to feel.” The boy took him up on the offer, and he has been climbing ever since. Some of the boulders are as high as 50 feet, and in case of falls – of which there are many – Salas can only rely on a couple of mattresses positioned strategically bellow and spotters who make sure climbers don’t hit their head or fall of the mats.

How does Justin Salas know where to grab on to the boulders and position his feet during a climb? Well, that’s what friends are for. They call out beta information like “Handhold one o’clock, Justin! One o’clock” from down below, which is the only thing he can really count on, apart from his own memory. “The process is feeling all the holds and having someone tell me where the holds are,” Salas says. “Then I feel every shape of the hold, which direction it goes. I start memorizing and putting pieces together and memorizing how my body feels when I’m in certain positions so I know, whenever I go back to do it again, how it feels. And then I do the route over and over again, even if it takes falling dozens and dozens of times.”


Photo: Justin Salas/Facebook

It’s been working pretty well, though, as Salas has scaled many high-level boulders during his short career, and even landed several sponsorships, including from chalk company Friction Labs.

Although he doesn’t hide his blindness, Justin never brings it up either. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him tell one person he’s blind,” climbing partner Cory Hayes told The Washington Post. “He doesn’t come across blind. He does things like — when you’re talking to him, he’ll look you directly in the eye on purpose so you won’t know he’s blind.” To his friends, he’s just another one of the guys.


Photo: Justin Salas/Facebook

But rock climbing is not the only extraordinary thing Justin Salas does. He is also a professional photographer and has his own freelance photography business, specializing in adventure shots, brand photography and landscapes. He claims this new passion gave him a way “to see through my vision loss.” To frame his shots properly, Justin his other still working senses – the sound of his subjects’ voices, the warmth and angle of the sun on his body and his memory from when his eyes actually worked.

Even though he can’t see what he shoots, a 27-inch computer screen allows him to pixelate his photos to the point where he can decipher the contrast of light and dark. Looking at some of his shots, you could probably never guess that the photographer is legally blind.


Photo: Justin Salas/Facebook

Justin Salas photography website

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