Pete Haertel’s right hand runs over the textures and layers of the exhibit as an audio clip describes the photograph framed on the wall. Standing in silence, his left hand clutches his white cane.
Legally blind since birth, Haertel has never seen a photograph.
But the sculpted 3D versions of the five award-winning photographs in Points of View, a new exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, are the closest he’s come to experiencing visual art.
"It really puts the picture, if you’ll pardon the pun, into perspective for me," says the 66-year-old Winnipegger. "It’s detailed and descriptive. It’s safe to say most people who are blind don’t go to museums. This is a game changer."
Of the 70 photographs in the exhibition, which were unveiled Thursday in a media preview, five were turned into sculpted 3D images embedded with tactile audio sensors. They were selected from almost 1,000 submissions crowd-sourced from across Canada.
The exhibition, which officially opens to the public Friday, is a multi-sensory experience for the visually impaired, allowing them to "see" the photographs, not with their eyes, but through their ears and fingertips.
Haertel and his wife Pat move through the high-ceilinged room, in which hangs the work of nine Manitobans. They stop in front of the sculptures and he runs his fingers over their edges while listening to the descriptions.
He’s quick to make a joke about his impairment, saying before he would have probably left nose prints on the framed photographs while trying to get as close to them as possible. Haertel has about four per cent of the vision of the average person, which means he can somewhat see certain colours.
One of the award-winning photographs turned into a sculpture was taken by 17-year-old Madelaine Toupin of Beausejour. The picture, which was recognized as the best youth photo, shows a dilapidated home from the Inuit village of Hebron, N.L., which was forcibly relocated in 1959.
The photo, entitled Gone But Not Forgotten, was taken last year and falls under the theme of reconciliation, one of the exhibition’s four themes. The others are inclusion and diversity, freedom of expression and human rights and the environment.
"I don’t even have words to describe what it’s like having my photo here," said Toupin. "I think the 3D photos are absolutely amazing too. I didn’t know they could do something like this. There are so many textures, and to be able to feel my picture in this whole new way is exciting."
It’s not the first time the museum has experimented with exhibits for the visually impaired. Last year, in an exhibition called Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, the museum featured six 3D printouts made with raised ink and paired with audio descriptions.
For Haertel, however, it cannot compare to this year’s exhibition.
"What they’ve done this year just runs circles around it," said Haertel, who used to have to rely on his wife Pat to describe exhibits at museums they would visit together.
The experiments in 3D printouts and sculptures are an effort by the museum to meet its mandate of inclusivity.
Haertel is drawn to Toupin’s photo in particular and spends a great deal of time interacting with it. He waits to speak with her, standing off to the side of the room as she is interviewed by various media outlets.
"The photo kind of just happened," Toupin said. "It wasn’t really a composed picture or anything to be honest. I was just there and thought it was a beautiful thing. It was such an amazing story, and to have it told through a picture, it’s just something else."
Points of View is the third of four exhibitions the museum is hosting in honour of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 4:07 PM CDT: Writethrough