In recent years, access to the arts and representation of those who are often excluded has greatly improved: inclusion, diversity and multi-sensory experiences are now established concepts in the cultural field. Workshops and participatory research help in this context to support people with special needs and specific questions to the arts.
The fruits of this new practice can be seen in many disciplines, including theatre, music, performance art, sculpture, poetry and drawing. The field of photography is particularly interesting as it is by definition a purely visual experience. Existing approaches in this field include the transformation of photographs for blind audiences, on the one hand, and artistic production by visually impaired photographers, on the other.
In October 2019, the Japanese gallery Guardian Garden hosted a photography workshop of a special kind. This event brought together “people with limited or low vision who want to experience the joy of photography and learn photographic skills” with “photographers who want to understand what it is like to be visually impaired and learn a new approach to photography through a new perspective” (Guardian Garden 2019). Working together, participants walked through the Ginza district in Tokyo and took photos together. The aim was to create a way to deepen the understanding of photography, as people “can’t see where to point the camera and don’t know exactly when and what to photograph”.
A similar approach was introduced about ten years ago by Andreas Reichinger and Moritz Neumüller. The technical basis for their Tactile Photography is stereoscopy and 3D printing. More recently, stereoscopy has celebrated a renaissance in the entertainment industry with 3D cinema and has also arrived on the consumer market in the form of digital “3D cameras” for photography and video. It is characterised by the ability not only to capture colour but also to encode depth at every point, i.e. plasticity, surface.
Tactile photography was conceived as a simple and affordable technique that can involve blind photographers in the selection and editing of their images, giving them more control over the whole artistic process. It is an open field for research and artistic practice and therefore accessible to everyone. It is also intended to give sighted photographers the opportunity to experiment with a new medium, to test its limits and “play against the apparatus”, to use Vilém Flusser’s famous words.
Implementation and first experiences
The first practical implementation of Tactile Photography took place at the Rencontre Euromaghrebine de Photographes in Tunisia in March 2015. Together with the members of a local association for the visually impaired (Union Régionale des Aveugles a Kairouan), a workshop concept was created that included an open and equal exchange on the topic of perception, reality and photographic representation. The results were to serve two purposes: Firstly, they were to directly and immediately benefit the user group and form the basis for the work, and secondly, they were to be presented as part of the Le Projet Kairouan exhibition. In several meetings with the members of the association, who functioned as a participatory research group, interests and questions were discussed, which then became the subject of the joint work. The seemingly simple initial question was: “What would you like to see?”, and the spontaneous answers mainly referred to the famous sights of the city, such as the great mosque, the market and the old fort. The first object to be produced was therefore a tactile map of the old town in which these sights could be traced. The materials were sourced from a local hardware shop and made on a very low budget: The streets were drawn on a metal plate with a biro and then traced with glue to create a simple relief map, the city wall was a strip of sandpaper.
At the second meeting, more wishes were added: one participant wanted a model of an aeroplane to touch, another was interested in the local football stadium, a third wanted an exterior view of the building where the Bir Barouta fountain is located. The models were made with the help of a local shoemaker using pieces of rubber normally used to make shoe soles for sandals. A photo of the Bir Barouta Fountain was used by the shoemakers as a template for a layered model of the building. The next day we visited the football stadium, which had a tactile model of the pitch and stands. However, the participants (all male on this day) were less interested in the architecture and its representation, but wanted to touch the artificial turf, explore the position of the penalty spot in relation to the goal and enter the players’ changing rooms. This interest in the “real thing”, more than in its representation, is not unusual when working with communication differences and made perfect sense in the case of the football stadium.
On the last day of the workshop, all the tactile pictures (including a view of the big mosque and a new version of the tactile city map) were handed over to the club and presented as an exhibition in their premises. During a small vernissage, the participants exchanged ideas with the visitors and discussed possible extensions of the project, such as labelling the tactile models in Braille.
The second aim of the project, to transform the stereoscopic images into tactile works and present them to a larger audience, took longer. The images taken in Kairouan were converted into relief prints at VRVis GmbH and printed on a 3D printer at the Vienna University of Technology. These prints were exhibited in Tunis and then given to the blind association in Kairouan.
A residency in Tokyo (early 2024) will seek to develop the concept further. The outcomes of these workshops will be artworks, prototypes, artistic research questions, group experiences and hopefully even permanent solutions in terms of accessibility. However, they must also reflect the cultural differences between Europe and Japan, and it is precisely this dialogue in the non-visual realm that should serve as an important outcome of this project.
Building on the results of the programs in Tunisia and Tokyo, other workshops are to take place in touristic destinations, such as Barcelona, Hallstatt, or Neuschwanstein. Viewpoints or photo points that attract tourists are to be explicitly chosen and photographed in the same way again and again. Also “classic” views that have defined landscape painting are to be included. Due to the completely different approach of the visually impaired photographers to the motif, their multi-sensory approach and the exchange with the sighted participants (and workshop leaders), a completely different image production will result than is known from these places. The aim is to reveal a new way of looking, a new way of wanting to see, which leads us away from clichés and postcard motifs and towards a new level of perception. This time, the transposition into multi-sensory art forms is to take place with local craftspeople and artists, in media such as felt, leather and embroidery.
The workshop consists of three parts:
- a preparatory phase, in which the participants prepare for the joint work in informal meetings and are familiarised with the medium of tactile photography. The classical and well-known views (painting and photography) will be transformed into reliefs by artists and craftspeople on swell paper, in felt, wood and leather to make them “tangible” for all participants. Then, in a participatory process, three locations will be chosen where the workshop will take place.
- a production phase: the participants will be taken to their chosen locations in a bus in order to take photographs together. Depending on the selection, these shoots can be completed in one or two days. Bad weather should not affect the production (except for strong wind or snowfall, in which case it must be postponed). The cameras and other equipment for the stereoscopic and photogrammetric shoots are known from the preparation phase and can therefore be used largely independently. However, the workshop leaders will be on site to provide advice and assistance.
- the selection and printing phase takes place after production. The pre-selection first identifies those images that are technically suitable to be tactilely transformed in artisanal processes. From this group of works, the group then selects those that will go into final production (colour 3D printing for exhibition purposes). In doing so, they apply their own catalogue of criteria, in consultation with the other participants and the course leader.
- Artificial Intelligence is used to make new stereoscopes. Trained on huge databases of existing historic collections of stereoscopes, the machine is able to convert “normal” photographs into stereoscopes, by creating a second image with a slightly different point of view, so that a simple stereoscopy viewer can be used to see it “in 3D”. In a later stage these images could be animated into small videos that can then be seen in VR glasses, or they could be printed out as “tactile photographs” for the blind.