Inclusive by design for a World Unseen

4 min
The head and shoulders of a man with short dark hair. He stands with his back to the camera and the top of his black backpack can be seen over his green shirt. He is looking at a huge image in front of him, but the edges are very blurred. The centre of the image appears to be of something green and foliage-like.

Anna Tylor is the Chair of Trustees at Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). On Thursday 4th April, she spoke at our World Unseen launch exhibition at Somerset House in London. She shared her thoughts on being involved in a project that takes, in her words, “creative courage to use photographs in this way”. Equally, we simply could not have conceived the possibility of undertaking World Unseen without their collaboration. The team at RNIB has been critical to making the entire project a triumph for accessibility in art.

And this is just the beginning. This initiative was already substantial, bringing together a huge number of people – partners, such as RNIB, but also world-renowned photographers, respected medical experts, specialists in print technologies, experienced accessibility consultants and, of course, sighted people and those with sight loss, who experienced the images in this new way for the first time. The London World Unseen has now closed its doors, but over the course of the year, it will be travelling across Europe ready to be experienced by many more thousands in person. It’s also available on-demand through our World Unseen online exhibition.

This is why Anna’s speech struck many chords with us, especially when she spoke of values we share on art, photography and creativity overall. These are the foundations upon which we built World Unseen.

“We all see the world differently.”

“Regardless of whether you are blind, partially sighted or have 20-20 vision, we all have a different experience of the world,” said Anna. “Life is multi-sensory. Nothing is one dimensional.” For those who do not have a disability, it can be easy to take this for granted and that’s precisely why sighted visitors to the exhibition were also shown how every image would be experienced through a number of different sight loss conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy. Everyone who came through the door of World Unseen – blind, partially sighted or sighted – was encouraged to touch the tactile elevated prints and the accompanying braille. The artist-narrated audio descriptions also made each a richer experience for everyone.

Anna Tylor, Chair of Trustees at RNIB stands to the left of the image, in front of a micrphone and against a black background upon which there are signs saying ‘Canon’ and ‘World Unseen’. She has blonde hair and glasses and reads from a sheet of paper.

Anna Tylor, Chair of Trustees at Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) spoke at our World Unseen launch exhibition at Somerset House in London.

“Photography is so much more than a snap.”

We couldn’t agree more. And World Unseen has been carefully curated to present a diverse cross section of…not genres exactly, but the kind of images that you might encounter in life. Fashion, portraits, the natural world, scientific images, personal explorations and even an ultrasound. “It appeals to us aesthetically, it stimulates the imagination, it grasps us emotionally, it tells a story. Whether you are seeing it, whether it is being described to you and even a tactile experience, it has a tremendous power,” said Anna. Certainly, we have always been vocal advocates for the power of photography to create positive change in the world. Indeed, we have a mantra, which we use frequently: “To see what we can change, we must change what we can see.”

“Art is not the preserve of any one group”.

As we have explained previously, enjoyment of the arts is actually enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, despite 16% of the global population experiencing a significant disability, access to art – whether enjoyment or participation – still has a long way to go. And yet we know that art can be the cornerstone of cultural identity, bringing the lived experiences of others to the wider world and creating a shared societal vocabulary which can be a key that opens the door to greater understanding. Anna describes this beautifully as “a living, ever-changing interpretation of how we live in the world” and encourages us to seek out the work of accomplished blind artists – Kimberly Burrows, Peter Eckert, James Gates, Keith Salmon and, of course, Ian Treherne, whose stunning portrait of Olivia Deane is part of World Unseen.

You’ve encouraged us to understand that we all see things differently, and that a world view comes in many forms. In turn, that touches us emotionally in so many different ways. Photographs have real influencing power.”

“Inclusive by design – just like the world should be.”

By partnering with RNIB, we are seeking a true understanding of the experience that blind and partially sighted art lovers often have when engaging with images. And what it takes to create a space that does not add a layer of accessibility to an inaccessible event, but begins with the question: “how do we make sure that these incredible images can be experienced by all?” RNIB has taken everyone involved on an important learning journey, teaching us not only how to create an inclusive exhibition, but guiding us as we built the accompanying website and now as we plan our ongoing activity.

Their presence by our side has been a gift to every person involved in bringing World Unseen to life and each has expressed how much the experience has taught them and what a joy it is to work with RNIB. And it seems the feeling is mutual. “RNIB is incredibly proud to be working in partnership with Canon. You share our values, and this exhibition showcases a phenomenal commitment to inclusion,” said Anna “It’s incredibly exciting to me, that you’ve had the creative courage to use photographs in this way. This is so much more than an art exhibition. It’s a demonstration of the power of photography, far beyond the taken image.

You can visit the World Unseen website to explore all the images, listen to their rich audio descriptions and learn about the technology used to produce them.