/ 29 June 2024

Canon’s World Unseen exhibition transforms photography experience for visually impaired in Morocco

White Rhino At Canon Awards
Through new eyes: South African Brent Stirton’s image of a rhino on at the World Unseen show in Marrakech, Morocco.

For blind Moroccan Hamid Nabil, experiencing Canon’s pioneering World Unseen photography exhibition, with its immersive, multi-sensory experiences, felt like “bringing darkness to light”.

Touted as “the photography exhibition you don’t need to see”, the innovative showcase centred on a series of emotive images taken by world-renowned photographers, teamed with elevated prints, audio descriptions, experiential soundscapes and braille descriptions. 

Canon Central and North Africa debuted the first-of-its-kind campaign in Africa at GITEX Africa 2024, the largest tech and start-up show on the continent, in Marrakech, Morocco, last month.

The exhibition, developed with the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK, is designed to bridge the gap between visual art and accessibility for blind, partially sighted and sighted people by “transforming how we all experience photography”, Canon says.

Through its elevated print technology, Nabil and other visitors could touch the different elements of the scenes, through shapes, highlighted areas and textures, enabling them to visualise the images. 

Each picture is obscured by screens simulating a range of visual impairments, from glaucoma to diabetic retinopathy, to help sighted people gain an understanding of how others experience the world.

Mysterious images

“The world of images has a kind of mystery to us,” Nabil told the Mail & Guardian. “It used to be a kind of mysterious world for us, as the visually impaired, especially for those who are born blind, which was not the case for me … 

“The way we conceive images, actually, we try to imagine, we try to rely on the descriptions of others or things that we might have experienced before.”

About 2.2 billion people globally have some form of visual impairment, which puts up barriers to appreciating photography. 

The exhibition, which also features the work of blind photographers, offers a unique, accessible and immersive way to experience and enjoy photography, says Canon Central and North Africa.

“This is a unique photography exhibition designed to enable people with sight loss to better engage with the visual world. It also challenges sighted individuals to see imagery through different lenses,” it says. 

“The World Unseen campaign is a groundbreaking initiative that embodies Canon’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity in the creative arts field. 

“By offering a sensory-rich experience, we aim to change how both sighted and visually impaired individuals engage with photography, making it an immersive and inclusive art form.” 

Being introduced to the campaign did bring “darkness to light” for 46-year-old Nabil. 

“The noble idea behind bringing something that used to be concocted on the basis of imagination and now I can touch it and use my fingers to find out about every detail of that object … was a unique experience.” 

Interacting with an accessible exhibition for the first time as a visually impaired person was a privilege. 

“It felt like being introduced to a new world — a new feeling, a new discovery, a major new experience. It’s like a first encounter with a world I used to see, which is out of reach, but now I can really have access and even touch and, let’s say, possess [the art, in a sense]. This is the magic of the experience itself.”

Powerful chord

The exhibition displayed photographs selected from Canon ambassadors, including multi-award-winning South African photojournalist Brent Stirton’s heartbreaking’s image of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan

The collection also featured renowned Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado’s incredible photograph taken in the heart of the dense Amazon, and Pulitzer-winning photo-journalist Muhammed Muheisen’s bittersweet photograph of Afghan refugee children playing. 

Also at the exhibition was an ultrasound scan by Bill Smith, a world-renowned specialist, for Karen Trippass, who is blind. The raised baby scan helped her to “touch and feel” her daughter while pregnant.

Nabil was born with congenital glaucoma and lost the vision in his left eye at 13 and the right at 17. 

“Thanks to God, it’s like a new life that started then because I had to rely on new assets, new capacities and new tools,” he said. 

“I had to develop new alternatives to conquer the world and impose myself, as such, because that’s the magic of it — that I took it more positively.”

There is one image in the collection that he won’t forget — sports photographer Samo Vidic’s dynamic black-and-white underwater photo of Slovenian Paralympic swimmer Darko Djuric powering through the water. The world champion has congenital amputation, a condition where limbs are not formed in utero.

It struck a powerful chord with Nabil, who is the first blind student in Morocco to earn a PhD in English. 

“He [Djuric] believed in the possibility to realise his dream and his capacity to turn difficulty to achievement. That was the image that really stuck to my mind and I’m sure it will remain deeply rooted in my memory until the hereafter.”

Each image on the exhibition was accompanied by vivid audio descriptions from the photographers in immersive, soundscape audio. 

For Nabil, who describes himself as a “talented listener”, hearing the audio descriptions, which helped to fill in missing details in the photos as well as the psychological dimension, deep experience and motivation of the photographers, was moving.

“I believe through the audio descriptions, in addition to the braille for those who read braille (because it’s not the case for me) that the idea becomes much more complete and comprehensive,” he added. 

“I’m really satisfied and impressed with this new invention and I’m so grateful to the people behind it.”

Sheree Bega’s trip to Morocco was sponsored by Kaoun International and Gitex Africa.