Monday, 5 May 2014

Details of the RNIB's tactile images.


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Marcus Sarko and Andy Brown travelled to the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) headquarters in Peterborough last thursday to meet with Sue King and Michelle Lee to discuss their tactile images. Andy reports:
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It was a fascinating meeting. We managed to talk through a lot of the rationale behind the processes that they have used working with all sorts of exhibitions for the British Museum and others.
The most striking thing for me was understanding  that what they produce is not really a version of an image itself. It’s much more useful to think of what they do as creating a package of information intended to communicate some of the content of an image, to allow blind people to create a mental map. So, they start off with a photograph, and produce a drawing based on what it has been decided are the key elements, and present this along with quite a lot of written (Braille) information.
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This has several implications. Firstly, whilst it will still make a lot of sense to have tactile images produced and presented along with standard images, Michelle and Sue were very persuasive that the way in which blind people will actually be best able to access the information in the exhibition will be in booklet form.
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Secondly, because the process allows the artists / curators to decide what information to communicate, we don’t have to worry about the background / extraneous noise in images as much as Marcus and I were expecting.
How it works
The technology that the RNIB use is similar to that we were shown at our first meeting; different areas on a piece of paper can be heat-treated and caused to raise, allowing bumps to appear that can be felt (image 1):
Whilst this is often used with maps and labelling, the same technology can be used to show simplified versions of images, like this Egyptian mask (image 2)
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The clever bit is that only the key parts of an image can be raised.
Image 3 shows a complete artwork simplified to get rid of background noise so that only certain elements can be felt. Then, different parts of the same image are explored further in the book in increasing detail (images 4,5,6,7), with different bits made ‘visible’ depending on what’s important. This might not necessarily be the most obvious things – in image 5, for example, you’ll notice that the damaged section of the cat has been made visible. Image 8 shows how specific you can be about what gets left out – here, all the leading in a stained glass window is shown except where it would interfere with understanding the image on the window (please note - this is actually a large-print document, hence the English characters rather than Braille).
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This has really interesting applications for photography, because it forces the photographer’s / curator’s hand in deciding what parts of an image to communicate. This makes certain aspects of images stand out in a way you perhaps wouldn’t have noticed if viewing a normal version of the image. For example, see the barbed wire round the church wall in image 9, and the people in the theatre doorway in image 10. (image 11 and 12 are further attempts to show the texture of the process – a tricky thing to do !)
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It can also, in my opinion, heighten the emotional impact of an image – as in images 13 and 14, an early war photograph in which the bones of the dead bodies stand out much more starkly, to me, in the tactile version.
I think the way in which this process affects the reading of an image can be a very significant aspect of this exhibition, as is the whole role of intention in photography and selecting which elements are important and the questions this raises about photography.
Andy and Marcus
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