Through new tactile print technology, braille is being used to help the blind and visually impaired navigate through towns and cities.
When I go to an exhibition, I always listen to someone who tells me what they see and their interpretations. But it will never be mine.
For sighted people, the very idea of having your ideas and impressions of art formed on your behalf is difficult to imagine. Coming face to face with a painting, photograph or print is a communion of artist and viewer, and it is the privilege of the sighted to be able to stand with a piece of artwork and bond with it uniquely through one’s own lived view with the world. For the visually impaired, this intensely personal experience often takes place through an intermediary – spoken interpretations and braille description – which can give helpful practical, contextual and historical information about the work. But often it also passes the observations, understanding and feelings of a sighted person to someone who is not.
Visual designer, Daphne Wageman has been using her photography to explore what it means to live without sight since 2014. She comes from a position of rare understanding, as someone who has experienced blindness. During an investigatory treatment for damage to her macula lutea (a point near the retina of the eye), it was necessary for Daphne’s optic nerve to be shut down and she temporarily lost her sight. “Everything faded away,” she recalls. “It was really really scary. I knew that my sight would come back, but I didn’t know when.” Understandably, these days remain undocumented (“For a few days I saw nothing, I could only listen, smell and feel.”), but upon regaining her sight, Daphne realised that this was something she needed to explore through her work, to use her photography to describe the feelings she could not fully put into words. For a long time, no one knew the source of her inspiration, as she only shared this very personal aspect with her family. However, the heavy emotion of the work felt somewhat incongruent to her goals as a professional photographer, and she took some time away from the project to consider just what she was trying to achieve. But after a period of serious introspection and questioning her direction, she took the important step of sharing her story. “I had to slow down because it became too emotional. Am I showing a personal story or not? I was struggling, but during the pandemic I thought ‘I have to continue this project. It has to be shown’.”
With the help and support of Chicago’s Blind Service Association, Daphne was able to capture portraits of blind and visually impaired people. But this statement in itself is both simplistic and almost misleading, as it was far from a case of just picking up the camera and taking their photos. The intention was to once again immerse herself in the absence of sight – photographing those who cannot see whilst blindfolded, using whatever senses remained available to depict her subjects. Each portrait is the result of time – that spent with the sitter, learning about them, their lives and experience of being blind or partially sighted – but also the time that is no longer taken for granted. “If you show it to a photographer [the resulting images], it’s not sharp, all the lights aren’t how they should be,” Daphne explains. “But that’s just what I love so much about this because you experience everything in a different way. Everything goes very slowly because you can’t see anything. I embraced the process of the slowness.”
Conversations, learning, sharing experiences and the gentler pace of work was enlightening and naturally took the project in a new direction that would encompass Daphne’s full repertoire of graphic and lighting design, as well as photography. “I wanted not only to print portraits and hang them on the wall because the experience is way more important than only the picture. So, slowly, installations are coming more to the front.” Her desire to create ‘touchable’ installation-style interpretations of her portraits led her to work at the Rijksmuseum, where Canon Production Printing’s (CPP) elevated printing technology was used to create textured facsimiles of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces, like Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride. She immediately emailed to find out more and found herself working with Clemens Weijkamp of CPP, an expert in this technology who has previously worked with Dedicon Netherlands on various projects for the visually impaired. “I read Daphne’s story and thought this was really something new,” he says. “A real portrait is very different to braille and graphics.”
To produce the elevated print, Clemens asked Daphne to send two files – one colour image and another called a ‘height map’, a greyscale image that indicates the different depths and heights of the picture to be printed. According to Clemens, this is often a challenge, but Daphne did it excellently and with great precision. “The translations mean you have to forget about a lot of rules you were taught and go into the three dimensional,” explains Daphne. “You don’t look at the picture anymore, you look more at the black and white parts, and you have to change your point of view when you look at the pictures.” Clemens and his team were able to give Daphne constructive feedback that allowed her to tweak the height map, millimetre by millimetre until she was completely satisfied with the way the image was presenting. From there it was simply a case of preparing the files and sending them to print overnight, where the automated process builds the layers and textures over a period of hours. Upon completion, the portraits were trimmed and given a matte coating. The normal finish is a semi-gloss, but Daphne felt that the lighting at FotoFestival Naardenwould benefit from a softer finish. “I was very happy with the results. We have a blue wall and black pictures in front of it, so the combination of two colours works really well. Along with the lights, you can see the relief clearly and it’s very touchable. It all comes together.”
Of course, Daphne, like all artists, is on a journey and this project, (entitled ‘Blindzicht’) continues to evolve. She is currently in an experimental period where the new chapter (working with a sound artist and engineer) is in creative synthesis for an exhibition opening in 2023. She is clearly excited by the prospect of introducing further multimedia into her work, but also as a means for others to explore the experiences of those who are blind more fully. “The chances are here to show their bravery and beauty. We can learn so much more from them – not only about not being able to see.”
To learn more about Daphne and her work, head to her website or follow her on Instagram.