Feel the news: bringing photojournalism to the visually impaired

4 min
Two bandaged heads, pictured in black and white, lean into each other. However, the edges of the heads are sharp, printed in relief against a flat background.

It's been just over a year since we released this article about our work at Museum Hilversum, where we teamed up with their Research Lab to ‘translate’ six winners of the Zilveren Camera (Silver Camera) prize for photojournalism into a tactile and audio experience for their blind and visually impaired visitors. Our elevated print technology naturally lends itself to such projects, but we consider our involvement to be an enormous privilege, as well as an opportunity to learn. It is initiatives like this one with Museum Hilversum and other superb institutions and artists that have planted the seeds for World Unseen.

Photojournalism brings so much important understanding of our world. It is ironic then, that those who need this understanding most are least able to access it. As a museum that regularly exhibits powerful photography exhibitions, Museum Hilversum in the Netherlands was determined to change the experience of their visually impaired visitors.

Hilversum is the home of the press, TV and radio broadcasting in the Netherlands, so the museum is a natural fit for exhibitions around media art and design. Housed in the former Hilversum Town Hall, remodelled to suit the needs of a respected museum, every year the museum hosts the prestigious Zilveren Camera (Silver Camera) prize for photojournalism and is the first location in its subsequent tour of the Netherlands. Most recently, Hilversum Museum has opened ‘The Research Lab’, a place of experimentation that focuses on new ways in which the museum can contribute to a more inclusive society.

Voel het nieuws (Feel the News) is the first project to emerge from The Research Lab and offers the visually impaired a means to experience the powerful photojournalism of Zilveren Camera. On hand to support in creating a holistic experience of the depicted scenes were visual designer and photographer Daphne Wageman and Clemens Weijkamp of Canon Production Printing. Daphne, while now sighted, has a rare understanding into the world without sight, as she has experienced blindness. Investigatory treatment for damage to her macula lutea (a point near the retina of the eye) meant that it was necessary for her optic nerve to be shut down and she temporarily lost her sight. Since then, she has used her creative work to explore life without sight.

A close up of a printer in action, as it prints the multiple fine layers required to create subtle tactile changes.

Once the files are prepared, technicians at the Canon Elevated Printing Technology lab of Canon Production Printing in Venlo are able to bring the subtle tactile elements to life using Elevated Printing Technology and Canon Arizona 13/2300 series wide Format Flatbed printers. (Photographed by Clemens Weijkamp)

Daphne, together with blind photographer Hannes Wallrafen, ‘translated’ six of the winning photos into tactile and audio formats that create a story that has more context and depth than the standard audio or braille descriptors. To do this, Daphne took each photo and painstakingly converted them into distinct colour image layers or ‘slices’ and produced a heightmap for each photograph in Adobe Photoshop. These files were then used by skilled technicians at the Canon Elevated Printing Technology lab of Canon Production Printing in Venlo. 

Elevated Printing Technology was developed as a bespoke application for the Canon Arizona 13/2300 series wide Format Flatbed printers and has been brought to life many exciting projects, including perfect replicas of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man and Carel Fabritius’ legendary trompe l’oeil, The Goldfinch. Daphne’s own project Blindzicht, was also brought to life using the technology, so it made perfect sense that she would be the one to join Clemens for this important new work.

A man and a woman stand side by side, inspecting a large black and white photograph of two people, huddled together.

Eddy van Wessel, winner of the Silver Camera and Daphne Wageman with an Elevated Print of an image from the the winning ‘Ruins for freedom’ series. (Photographed by Kenneth Stamp)

Two pairs of hands explore a black and white elevated print image of a young man.

Eddy van Wessel and Hannes Wallrafen experience an Elevated Print together.

Elevated Print uses UV curable inks, which are in a liquid form until they are solidified by exposure to intense ultra-violet light. This means that extremely thin layers of ink – even thinner than a human hair – can be printed one on top of the other quickly after each ‘curing’. The height of the photographs was built up with CMYK and white inks, and the final two top layers (the ‘relief layer’) are in while and then the final colour.

At the same time, Hannes Wallrafen worked with Hilversum Museum and the Zilveren Camera photographers to add an audio aspect to the museum app. Each was asked to give a full and detailed description of their image and Hannes was on hand in an advisory capacity, making sure that their contribution met the necessary requirements to fully illuminate the photographs for visually impaired listeners. Photojournalism is known for its emotive strength, subtlety of detail and nuance of context, and the robust and long-lasting tactile print together with audio descriptions create a full and rich narrative of each story in the mind’s eye. “A combination of auditory information and feeling gives an A-ha!" says Hannes, who examined the works with collaborators Ron and Tim. “A description, such as a big step, wet weather, long boots, jacket, direction left, is important. Then you start exploring, you get the combination, and it really adds value.”

“In this project, we strive to contribute to a more inclusive society,” says museum director, Fleur Van Muiswinkel. “As part of the Zilveren Camera, we are showing the first results of our research, but we are still at the beginning of this experiment. It needs attention and time because it is more complex than you might think at first glance. As a museum director, I am very curious whether we can also apply this on a large scale in other exhibitions in the future.”