Touching the Stars: Blind Photographers and Space Telecopes

Night. A person on a chair stretches up as though to reach the stars.

Partialinsight reaching for the stars

When I was very small I thought I could literally stretch up and touch the stars.

I got a chair, but it still wasn’t enough.

BBC News magazine recently ran an impressive feature on Juan Torre, a blind photographer from Bilbao Spain.

Although his vision is very low, Torre can take photographs by using a zoom lens like a kind of telescope and then snapping interesting things that come into his view. Then he processes the images using a computer with a large screen and special software, selecting and editing to end up with a sort of “Braille photography”. The video show him at work.

It is the end result that is the really exciting and innovative aspect. When the final picture is printed it looks like an ordinary photograph to sighted people, but it is also a patchwork of textures that a blind or visually impaired person can experience with their fingertips. It isn’t just Braille but much more, and has been described as “tactile photography”.

Think of the different shadings on a map but translated for the sense of touch.

The BBC report provided no real detail about how the textures are rendered, which I thought was a pity, but as far as I can tell some form of 3 dimensional printing is used.

I decided to do some investigation and found another example of tactile printing for the blind and VI. There is a project at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore which aims at producing tactile versions of the wonderful pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Here’s a frame I grabbed from a video in the news release. I picked it because it shows what the printer looks like, how the 3 dimensional picture is rendered line by line, and how the finished tactile picture is going to look.

A 3-D printer renders a tactile image of a star cluster

Different types of feature are represented by particular textures. The brightness is indicated by their height, as you might expect. The scientists have obviously worked out a vocabulary that can be recognised by touch and which give a vivid picture distant nebula. So for example gas is shown by lines, dust by dots.

The video doesn’t say what nebula the printer is busy producing a tactile picture of, but my guess is Star Cluster NGC 602. Does that look right to you?

Star cluster NGC 602. Filaments, gas clouds and many bright new stars being born.

It’s easy at first to think a sighted person has an advantage in visualising these Hubble images because they can “really see” a nebula or cluster. But a little reflection shows this is wrong. Nobody can see these distant objects with their eyes. They rely on computers to construct composite images from photographs taken by specialised equipment on a telescope floating in space. The colour composite images contain more information, but the tactile pictures are just as valid and just as beautiful. Touch has its own aesthetic.

So it is not too fanciful to say we can reach out and touch a distant galaxy. Close your eyes and imagine doing it now.

Six months ago I would have been surprised to know there were blind photographers. But there are many in the world. If you become blind or partially sighted it may sharpen your creativity and your awareness of the visual world. Photography is an art by nature technological, and the technology lets blind or visually impaired people augment the vision that remains to them.

And as Juan Torre says

“It can be overcome. There is no doubt you can do it.”

Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) – ESA/Hubble Collaboration

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About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
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