Braille Monitor                          November 2018

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The Unexplored Dimensions of Photography: The Blind and the Freedom of Tactile Understanding

by John Olson

John OlsonFrom the Editor: Most readers of the Braille Monitor will recognize John Olson as the pioneering developer behind 3DPhotoWorks. Although he has appeared several times in this publication, he was most prominently featured in our discussion of the Newseum exhibit which many Federationists attended during the Washington Seminar. On the afternoon of July 6, John was able to share with us his enthusiasm for opening the world of art and pictures to the blind and for his association with the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what he said:

You know, some months ago President Riccobono asked me if I would speak to this assembly. I seized the opportunity; I said yes immediately. He didn’t say I had to follow his address. [laughter] I would like to move that this be disallowed. Fabulous!

Federation members: what a convention. [applause] What a turnout; what enthusiasm. I’ve never seen one like this before.

I’m here today to update you on the development of 3DPhotoWorks fine art printing. This, as many of you know, is a technology that is currently delivering art, photographs, maps, and diagrams to members of the blind communities at six museums in the US and in Canada. As many of you know, it has been my goal from the very beginning to create a worldwide network of museums, science centers, libraries, and institutions willing to provide the world’s blind population with visual information using this tactile medium. Today I will also report to you on how successful a partnership can be when you have a joint unified vision, great leadership, and a highly motivated membership like the members of the National Federation of the Blind who are in this room today.

So what does this mean? It means that the goal 3DPhotoWorks set out to achieve ten years ago could not have been accomplished without the leaders in this room, without President Riccobono, without Dr. Maurer, and most importantly without the membership of the National Federation of the Blind.

So let me start by taking you back in time more than fifty years. Back then I was a highly motivated young man with a goal to become a world-class photojournalist and a war photographer. As a twenty-year-old US Army draftee, I made a series of photographs during an historic battle in Vietnam. They were published by the newspaper Stars and Stripes and in LIFE. This series launched my career, and it allowed me to travel the world for decades. Photography gave me access to people and places that only a few people can ever have.

Toward the end of my career, about ten years ago, I realized how critical images have been in my life. That caused me to wonder what it was like for those who didn’t have access to art, to photography. I wondered what it was like for the blind community, who couldn’t access visual information. It was at that moment, on a Labor Day weekend of 2008, that I set out to develop a means by which blind people could see art, could see photographs, and could acquire visual information. There were just three little issues I had to overcome: 1) I had no neuroscience training; 2) I had no engineering experience; and 3) I had never met a blind person.

Now I began my research by opening the Yellow Pages, where I looked under the category blind. There I found a number of organizations all located in New York City. I visited four of them in the same day. They were all very encouraging but said, “You really need to meet some blind people.” They said that I needed to show them [the blind people] some prototypes and ask for their input. So I learned of this event, a state convention to be held in Albany, New York, by a group called the National Federation of the Blind. I took an exhibitor’s table and showed them prototypes of our tactile printing, and I listened. I learned many things that day: 1) It’s okay to use the B word—Federation members got me over that hurdle very quickly; 2) Don’t leave your box lunch under your table with guide dogs nearby. A dog that will remain nameless ate my sandwich, my potato chips, my chocolate chip cookie—but he left me my apple. So, if Mike Robinson of New York is in this audience, we need to discuss this after the meeting. But the third and most important event of the day came when a man introduced himself saying, “My name is Mark Riccobono. I’m with the National Federation of the Blind. I’d like to invite you to meet with me and my team in Baltimore.” That meeting began an incredible journey of friendship and collaboration.

Many years ago I came to my first convention to conduct focus groups and testing. I asked you to tell me about your blindness, your interest in art, and in photography. You told me about your museum experience, and you helped me to evolve 3D tactile fine art printing.

By 2016 we had our international debut at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It was a success, one that brought inquiries from a dozen museums: museums in Austria, Dubai, Mexico, the Philippines, and Germany. But not one inquiry did we get from the United States. But, like the NFB, we persevered.

Late in 2016 a small museum in Texas contacted me. They said they wanted to serve their blind community but needed to raise the money before they could proceed. I suggested that they get their donor base together in one room. I’d fly to Texas, and I’d speak to them. If they raised the money, they could pay my travel expense, and we’d do one tactile piece to start. If they weren’t successful in raising the money, no worries: I’d take the gamble, and I’d cover the expense on my own. They had 120 people in the room when I arrived. I spoke for seven minutes telling your story. Then I came off the stage.

Ten minutes later my contact came over to me and said, “We’ve just raised half of the $25,000 we need.” Within a few weeks they had raised the balance. Earlier this year the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum of Canyon, Texas, installed their first tactile piece, the artwork of Georgia O’Keefe called “Red Landscape.” They are now planning for their second tactile installation early next year.

In 2017 we had our second exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It was another success, but still very few US inquiries.

Later in 2017 we broke some ice and completed an installation at Endicott College near Boston and an installation at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. In fact we did this installation for an exhibit builder and not directly for the museum. So I had no direct contact with the leadership there. Later that year, at the American Alliance of Museums meeting in St. Louis, the exhibit builder pulled me aside. He said, “We have a problem. Our client is very upset. He is very worried that the tactile piece we installed will fail.”

I said I needed more information. He said, “It’s so popular, there are so many hands on it all the time, that he wants to put it behind glass!”

I said, “No, no, no, no. Now I understand. I’ve got a better solution. Tell your client to take the art down, find a closet, lock it in the closet, turn the lights off, throw the key away, and it will never fail.” He understood. That piece is still standing in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia today. I was there a few weeks ago, and they are discussing adding four more tactile pieces.

Earlier this year we had a break. As I mentioned, I started my career as a war photographer. The battle I photographed in 1968 turned out to be historic. Many historians say it was the turning point for US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Like many veterans I came back and spent nearly fifty years not talking about Vietnam. But as the fiftieth anniversary approached, I began to wonder what had happened to the eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old men that I had photographed in 1968. Now I didn’t know any of these men, but by chance I learned one of their names, and, over time, I located and completed audio interviews with eleven of them. The interviews were highly emotional as the fighting in Huế was violent, it was up close, and it was personal. I realized I had a powerful potential exhibit if only I could find a major museum to showcase it. Over the course of the year, every major museum in New York and Washington turned me down!

In late September 2017 I visited the Newseum in Washington regarding a small, tactile project. I took the opportunity to pitch the Vietnam exhibit and show them a PowerPoint presentation and let them listen to some of the audio. They were overwhelmed. Within three days we had a handshake agreement to produce both a conventional and a tactile exhibition. Now usually an exhibit like this would take eighteen months to two years to produce. We were given less than 120 days to make this happen.

So my first call was to President Riccobono. I knew that the Federation met every January in DC with members from all fifty states present, and I thought that possibly we could get a small bus to bring a few members to the opening. President Riccobono was thinking light years beyond me. I pulled off the road next to a Walmart on a drive between Georgia and Texas to have this conversation, and he was light years beyond my thinking. It was early on in that conversation that he proposed the possibility of the Federation being interested in sponsoring the event.

Now many of you know how the story ends. The National Federation of the Blind and Nikon cameras agreed to cosponsor this historic event. On January 30, 2018, 350 Federation members attended an opening at the Newseum where President Riccobono, four-star Marine General Walters, and I were there to say “Welcome.” [applause]

The exhibit, with twenty conventional photograph prints and ten tactile prints, has been so successful that it has been extended six months. The museum vice president in charge has said “From opening on January 6, 2018, to May 31, a little over 85,000 visitors were exposed to this incredible exhibit. We see a definite uptick in visitors among our blind guests. With the advent of this exhibit it is a wonderful thing to watch people who have not been embraced by the museum community be in an exhibit space where they can experience the content as fully as any other exhibitor.”

I believe this is my fifth convention. Today when I walked through these halls, I don’t see Federation members; I see friends, I see collaborators, I see technical advisors, and I see changemakers. We have just begun to scratch the surface in conjunction with the Federation. There is the possibility of developing an incredible technology, and with your help we’ll be there. Thank you.

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