‘Because I Cannot See’ is an exhibition hosted by Miniclick from Falmouth graduate Tom Pullen, that engages people with a sensory experience. Collaborating with product designers and the Cornwall Blind Association, the works include traditional photos alongside 3D tactile versions of the portraits and audio and braille captions.
The exhibition forms a part of Miniclick’s “Another Way of Looking” programme throughout October 2014, alongside Brighton Photo Fringe and Brighton Photo Biennial.
Our writer, Bryony Good, spoke to Tom about his work…
I was lucky enough to interview Tom Pullen on his upcoming exhibition with Miniclick as part of Brighton Photo Fringe, ‘Because I Cannot See’. I was especially keen to look into Tom’s work, having worked with an interest with representations and the relationship between subject and photographer. Pullen created this project working closely with The Cornwall Blind Association. After feeling like his working with those who could not see how they were represented, Pullen says he felt like it was a ‘closed system’. This lead him to take his work a step further; working with product designers he made his images into 3d creations, making his work in to a multi sensory experience. The exhibition consists of the original portraits alongside the 3D tactile versions of the portraits and audio and braille captions.
I spoke to Tom about what inspired him to create this multi dimensional work and discovered how a collaboration of talented people pushed the boundaries of traditional forms of representation to show that really, there are no limits.
Bryony Good: What first inspired you to work with the Cornwall Blind Association?
Tom Pullen: During my first year at Falmouth University, we were set a brief to produce one image that, to us, summed up the idea of ‘community’. I decided to visit a blind guitar club run by the Cornwall Blind Association. I spent one afternoon there and came away with a shot that I thought was good enough for the brief, three guitar players huddled close around Ron, the teacher. Three years later I was researching for my final major degree project, and read a BBC News Cornwall article about several job cuts and funding losses at the Cornwall Blind Association. I then found a report from the RNIB stating that if current local government cuts continued (nationally), then there would be no funding for blind people in 10 years time. So I picked up the phone and rung up the Cornwall Blind Association, asking if I could document the work of the charity on a wider scale than previously.
BG: At first how did the Cornwall Blind Association respond to your photographing?
TP: Fortunately, I started discussing my ideas and aims with Katia, a former student at Falmouth, who now works with the charity. She totally got what I wanted to do and was incredibly helpful in getting me into all the different social clubs for the visually impaired. We all agreed that a series of photographs highlighting the positive sides to life, down to the help and support facilitated by the CBA, would be far more beneficial in the local community than to show just the hardships that sight loss brings. Katia also got Arts For Health, a local Cornish charity, involved and we went about setting up art workshops for a small group of visually impaired people. For six weeks they were taught different mediums and ways of making art – ceramics, wicker weaving, pastels – and this was exhibited alongside my photographs.
BG: You mention you felt photographing the blind felt like a closed system, was it that you felt it was difficult to photograph someone who could not see the way in which they were represented?
TP: Visiting the various clubs several times, it started to feel somewhat pointless that some of the subjects couldn’t see the photographs we were making together. Realising this, I started to really question how I was portraying them in the portraits. In terms of a closed system, it was as if the channel of communication between me, as the photographer, and them as the subject was only working on my terms, which is just unfair. We would negotiate what prop they wanted to hold, and how they wanted to hold it, what direction to look and what facial expression, but ultimately trust was incredibly important in ensuring the right representations.
BG: How did the idea for a tactile exhibition come about?
TP: It was in a weekly tutorial with tutors and course mates where we started thinking of how our work could exist outside of work prints and a print box for final assessment. With the help of my tutor Dave White, we settled on a 3D, tactile exhibition being a good output for the project, as it would be inclusive to those photographed, and those interested in photography. This then progressed to include braille captions, then audio headphones. I then met Tom Cowell and Rob Dooley, two students on the Sustainable Product Design course at Falmouth, who worked on materials, techniques and prototypes for the portraits, using the project as part of their coursework. So it was a natural, but very fortunate and lucky progression, with a lot of instrumental people along the way.
BG: As the project progressed, did you know the images would end up as a 3D works and did it change the way you photographed?
TP: I had already started photographing at some of the clubs before the 3D idea came about. Some of the photographs in the exhibition were already taken before, some were taken after. The main thing I had to ensure after that was that the portraits were on a plain backdrop to make the 3D milling process easier, resulting in the tactile portraits being more easily recognisable. I was also shooting odd bits of video and reportage pictures, which I started to concentrate less on once the exhibition was in place. So I think it did change my practice in a way; I concentrated on the portraits more, especially when I was running out of time and my dissertation wasn’t writing itself.
BG: How do you think your photographic work will progress? Can you see yourself with 3D design again within a different context?
TP: At the moment I’m planning a return trip to Mekele in Northern Ethiopia where I’ve started a project at a school for the visually impaired, which will be in early 2015. I haven’t finalised what the output of the project will be yet, but I’m keeping an open mind. If there are interesting ways of getting the story out there then I’ll explore them, whether they involve 3D design or audio captions or something entirely different, as long as the story gets told in an engaging way for both the audience and subject.
BG: Did your subjects respond well to how the project developed?
TP: Trust was the most important part in representing the visually impaired, I think having the tactile exhibition planned, knowing where the photos would end up, and being able to confidently tell the subjects my plan and how they could be part of it, that certainly helped and the response was really great. Where at the beginning of the project it was sometimes difficult explaining why I was photographing and what I was trying to say with the work, once the tactile element was in place, everyone was on board. At the private view of the exhibition in Falmouth, the Cornwall Blind Association organised transport for a number of members, who over the course of the week returned sometimes with their family.
BG: I think your work is really interesting in terms of questioning photographic representations and its limitations; did you set out to explore this?
TP: For me, it wasn’t about exploring limitations of photography as such, it was about ensuring the work was relevant and accessible to those it included. Rather than finding out why photography or art can be difficult to approach for some people, the whole project was about finding ways to make them easily accessible, so I think limitations were the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Tom Pullen’s exhibition opens at the Miniclick Business Concern this Thursday, I for one will make sure I am there.
PV Thurs 2nd Oct 6pm – 8pm (with party to follow)
Fri 3rd – 12 to 5pm
Sat 4th – 11am to 5pm
Sun 5th – 11am to 5pm
Thurs 9th – 12 to 5pm
Fri 10th – 12 to 5pm
Sat 11th – 11am to 5pm
Sun 12th – 11am to 5pm
Thurs 16th – 12 to 5pm
The Miniclick Business Concern at 68MS is located in the middle of Brighton, 1 minute from the beach and a ten minute walk to Brighton Train Station. A number of trains run every hour to London (Victoria – 51mins / London Bridge – 56mins / London Blackfriars – 1hr 03mins).