Communication Currents

Using Blind Photography to Expand the Ways We Visualize Race

April 1, 2016
Visual Communication

Elizabeth Kaszynski became interested in expanding the ways in which we visualize race after she read a children’s book, The Black Book of Colorswhich is printed in braille. The book describes colors through other senses, such as the way red tastes or how yellow feels. The entire book is in black, excepting white translations of the braille, and the illustrations are raised on the page, so that readers can experience the images tactilely. Kaszynski became particularly interested in the ways that expanding the canon of visuality could have significant implications on the ways in which we visualize race.

In her study, she analyzes photos by blind photographers—blind photography—to uncover the ways in which people can visualize race using more than just their eyesight. Blind photography, Kaszynski explains, is at an important intersection between blindness and sight and the ways in which we often understand visuality. Kaszynki’s goal with this study was to expand the tools with which people can create meaning about race and relationships. 

Vision and visuality seem to be very similar terms. However, vision refers to the way light is optically and neurologically processed through eyesight, while visuality refers to a process of imagination and invention, and is in the province of rhetoric. The distinctions between them are incredibly important, Kaszynski explains. Vision is what the eyes process; visuality is the process of piecing together the relationships among events in the world. Visibility, a third term Kaszynski discusses in her study, refers to the frame of the image and about possibility—whether or not something, or someone, can be seen or imagined in relationship to others.

People often equate seeing with knowing or understanding. In her paper, Kaszynski explores the possibility of using other senses such as hearing and touch for the practices of visualization, or the imagination of relationships, arguing that these senses can and should contribute not only to understanding, but also to visualizing and to visuality.

The independent relationship between vision and visuality is especially significant with regard to race. The connections between visuality and race are deep and longstanding. Race is something people often discern visually, and the categories and relationships we create through this vision help us place ourselves and others in relationship to the world. A more robust understanding of visuality, argues the author, could create a more complex recognition of race and the way it is imagined in the 21st-century United States.

Blackness has a long and complicated history with visuality.Frantz Fanton famously recalled a white child exclaiming, “Look! A Negro!” For him, comments such as this one over-determine identity and eliminate the possibility for mutual recognition. In such instances, vision works to block other ways of imagining human relationships. Kaszynski argues that although race is most often recognized as visual, it is also related to imagination and visuality. When blind people are taught about race, they are taught to experience race in terms of vision, even though they cannot see, further demonstrating that race is part of a constitutive, or created, social process. Visuality is an ideological process that has great influence on how we process the images we see.

Different Visualities 

Photos taken by blind photographers prompt important questions about the ways in which touch and sound can give people a better understanding and experience of visuality and, thus, visualization.

When photographer Pete Eckert takes photos such as “Coffee,” (pictured, above-right, with permission) he uses his voice like a bat uses sonar. He bounces his voice off the model’s form to identify her position in relation to other objects in the room, and to get an idea of the person’s silhouette. He says:

Sound gives an image just like light gives an image. Sound wraps around images, and if you’re in the sound shadow it’ll give you a description of where and what the thing is you’re looking at. My artwork is a byproduct of my perceptions.

Sound in this case creates a different visual experience of space. Looking at “Coffee,” a viewer may be able to consider the ways in which people not only see race, but also hear it. Kaszynski argues that just as Eckert hears the sound bouncing off the figure, allowing him to capture the subject on film, we should consider the ways in which we take in stories about what is “natural” or inherent and how listening to stories solidifies or changes prevailing narratives of being and meaning.

Another way to enhance visuality is through the sense of touch. Gerardo Nigenda’s photograph, “Entre lo visible y lo tangible, llegando a la homeóstasis emocional,” (pictured, left, with permission) is part of a set of images in which he superimposed braille upon photos of an intimate encounter with a female partner. The superimposed braille can be roughly translated as reaching emotional equilibrium between the invisible and the tangible. The photo constructs and requires a connection between the worlds of those who are sighted and those who are blind, because the blind presumably cannot see the graphic representation, and the sighted are probably not able to read the braille. “Touch restores the proximity of self and other, who then is understood as neighbor,” as Martin Jay writes.

Visualizing Race 

Based on the analysis of these photographs, Kaszynski argues that it is possible to understand race through means other than eyesight. Visuality, she says, has always been multi-sensorial. Incorporating other ways of visualizing race could help people attend to the practices of visualization that are used to make judgments and take action. In relation to race, she writes,

A textured and reverberating visuality encourages us to be reflexive of our own blindness in regard to both vision and visuality: What is it that we are blind to in the sense that we physically cannot see it, and what do we fail to imagine?

About the author (s)

Elizabeth Kaszynski

Indiana University

Associate Instructor