Photography by the deaf-blind
Can a deaf-blind person take photographs? Adjust focus, zoom in, and make a composition? Even without hearing their surroundings?
And why would a deaf-blind person want to take photos?
These are questions we seek to answer in our project ‘Taktil Foto’ (Tactile Photo), a study of the significance and meaning of images to the deaf-blind. Three participants in the project with sight and hearing loss are learning how to handle a camera and take photographs independently within a given theme. The images will then be reproduced and displayed in a tactile medium involving raised contours and structures that can be felt with the fingertips. At the same time, the images will retain their visual essence.
“It’s exciting! I am completely blind and have now learnt how to use a camera. I often want to photograph things I feel – for example, a door handle, or the door I go through every day. It will be especially interesting if the technology for creating tactile images can be refined – that would mean a lot for us deaf-blind. Then we can start using pictures in a completely new way,” says Rolf Eriksson.
The tactile printing technology we are seeking to develop would be able to convey content, mood and expression. The images will be shown in a tactile photographic exhibition where the works will not only be felt physically – we believe they will also touch the heart and mind of the viewer.
Photography is both a creative discipline and great fun – this lies at the heart of the project, and is just as important to us as its technological challenges.
On Their Own Terms
Having the opportunity to take and experience photographs is something most of us take for granted. Our whole existence is permeated by images and sound – sensations which it is virtually impossible for deaf-blind people to share. For them, impressions come via an interpreter using tactile signing (hand-touch sign language). To express themselves on their own terms, without ‘filtering’, is difficult. Describing images through a sign language interpreter is especially challenging.
Blind photographers can be found in other parts of the world. In 2009, for example, the California Museum of Photography staged a great show titled “Sight Unseen“, which exhibited works by blind photographers from around the globe. In Sweden, however, blind photography is virtually unknown.
Blindness is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an inability to see; that is, a loss of vision to varying degrees. Most blind people see something: strong colour contrasts, light and dark, blurred shapes. Those who are completely blind cannot even perceive light. Relying more on their other senses, such as a heightened sense of hearing, helps to some degree to compensate for this.
Deafblindness is a separate disability, however, where communication usually involves tactile signing, hand over hand; describing a scene or photograph this way is especially difficult. Not surprisingly, there are very few deaf-blind photographers.
The Taktil Foto project started in 2011 and will end during the fall/winter 2014 with an exhibition at Stockholm City Museum.
The project is divided into two parts: photography and exhibition.
1. In the initial phase, the deaf-blind will have the chance to explore ways of visualizing their environment through the medium of photography.
2. Our public exhibition will give people with impaired sight and hearing a rare opportunity to experience photographs. The normally-sighted will alsobe able to see the tactile images since they will also be displayed in a visual format.
An important goal of the project is to develop methods that will enable museums, art galleries and other exhibitors to produce images for the deaf-blind.
Our hope is that in future it will become as natural to include tactile images in exhibitions as it is to have sign-language interpreters at lectures.
The exhibition is run by the Association of the Swedish Deafblind (Förbundet Sveriges Dövblinda).
A tactile image has raised contours and surfaces, allowing it to be “seen” by touch using the fingertips. Current examples of tactile images generally provide very basic information, with simple lines and structures.
By using existing technologies in new combinations, we are attempting to make images for the deaf-blind in a way never done before. Using an advanced, high-resolution 3D printer and techniques for creating surfaces with different structures, we believe we can achieve our goal.
Update November 2014:
The project ended in November 2014 with the exhibition Våga se! (Dare see!) at Stockholm City Museum.