Black and white photo, man at city crossroads

Opening up: online audio description and discussion sessions during a pandemic

By Caroline Dawson, Caroline Mawer and Janice McLaren

Located in central London, The Photographers’ Gallery’s (TPG’s) mission is to ‘champion photography for everyone’. While a seemingly impossible goal, when the initial lockdown occurred in March 2020, it felt important to strive even harder toward this ambitious, inclusive aim.

Early on during the Covid-19 pandemic, London’s trusts and foundations worked together to provide coordinated funding. Their aim was to support organisations responding to the needs of communities in the capital affected by the pandemic. An application for TPG to run additional online, audio-described sessions, was picked up by the Vision Foundation – London’s leading sight loss charity. Support from the Foundation enabled TPG to organise the Slow Looking series.

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Sunil Gupta Untitled #22, 1976 From the series Christopher Street. A black-and-white photograph in landscape format. It is  a full-length portrait of a young man against the background of a crossroads in a city; brick-built apartment buildings, cars and people are visible in the background. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery © Sunil Gupta All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020. Extract from a longer Audio Description by Eleanor Margolies for The Photographers’ Gallery.

From June to October 2020, TPG programmed ten online Slow Looking sessions. Each session featured three photographs or artworks by a different photographer. Some sessions related to the work of photographers and artists exhibiting at the Gallery – such as Czech photographer Jan Svoboda, mixed media artist Julie Cockburn, and London-based art and documentary photographer, Sunil Gupta.

Other Slow Looking events introduced work outside of the Gallery including: Delhi-based Pranav Lal who is blind and uses sound to create his landscape photographs; award-winning documentary photographer Hannah Reyes Morales; and the more abstract work of Northampton-based photographer Tyrone Williams. Often the photographers joined the sessions and further enhanced the discussion that took place following each audio description.

Ahead of each session, within the website event page, each audio describer’s pre-recorded descriptions were made available, accompanying high-resolution images of the works . This meant that people could listen to the audio descriptions in advance of hearing them live during the event. Following each event, the recorded audio descriptions moved to a Slow Looking section of the website.

Slow Looking from audio describer Caroline Dawson’s perspective

I have worked with TPG since 2018, offering in-gallery audio description tours for visitors, and training for staff. At the end of February 2020, I visited the Gallery to prepare descriptions of the current exhibition for an in-gallery event, due to take place in April as part of International Slow Art Day. This would be my last visit to the Gallery for months.

Access to art moved to the front of many people’s minds when lockdown was announced. An inspiring flurry of activity swiftly shifted planned events and exhibitions online, including the Slow Looking sessions.

I have always written my audio descriptions in the gallery, as to me, being in the space, with the actual artwork is crucial. I was able to do that for two of the Slow Looking sessions, but for the majority, I studied the images in books or digitally. Initially this felt limited, but I grew to love being able to zoom into intricate details in a way I would never be able to do in a gallery.

Each session began with an introduction to the artist and featured factual audio descriptions of three to four of their photographs. I read each description whilst the correlating image was shown on screen. At the end of each description, there was space for conversation with the attendees.

These discussions were a valuable part of the events, facilitating the clarification of artwork details, and space for conceptual queries. Audio description should never be didactic, as everyone has an equally important viewpoint to bring to the conversation and interpretation of an artwork.

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Mark Neville, Parade #7, 2019. A colour photograph, landscape in format. The majority of the background is made up of a body of water, maybe a small man-made lake, created for fishing. A young pre-teen girl  with straight blonde hair stands at the front of the composition, on the right of the image, facing the photographer. Her feet are out of shot. Behind her are around 27 dogs, Foxhounds or Harriers. They are tall and thin, with short fur. They are all caramel in colour, some with dark brown patches, and some with white patches. Their thin faces are flanked by big droopy ears. © Mark Neville. Extract from a longer Audio Description by Caroline Dawson for The Photographers’ Gallery.

The ambition of TPG to pivot their scheduled in-gallery events online flourished into a colourful, diverse, and in-depth programme that was enhanced through being digitally available. These events were accessed from across the globe. There was a unity to each happening as people grappled with what was going on outside. Having a community – even if only for an hour – created a space to reflect and be inspired.

Slow Looking from participant Caroline Mawer’s perspective

I used to live just five minutes from TPG. So I really missed it when I moved away.

During the pandemic, I was shielding. I had to focus on some of the most basic basics. Like how to get hold of food. When, eventually, I got that sorted (thank you Oddbox!) I started using my own recycling to make a totally new type of art (for me) – resulting in my big installation Safe as Houses crammed across my front room. But I was really missing going to galleries. So I definitely wanted to give the TPG Slow Looking a go.

The system of letting us look before the talk meant I could decide what I thought and what questions I wanted to ask. Then the detailed audio description provided answers as well as bringing up yet more questions. Using my iPad for Slow Looking is, to be honest, much better for me with my visual impairment than peering through a bit of glass in the gallery. More ‘nose to art’. As well as easier for a sort of ‘standing back’. With all the encouragement to ask questions and discuss, I felt really properly included. Like this was a splendid club I – and everyone else too – was suddenly now a proper part of. Not elitist at all. But intimately close to the highest levels of art.

I am especially interested in audio description for my own artwork and it was really great to hear a master, or rather I should say a mistress, at work. And I really appreciated having the photographers there to give in-depth insights into their practice as well as the content of their work.

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From the series Chukotka. This colour, landscape format photograph is in muted brown tones with pearly highlights. The colours and crisp details evoke sepia photographs or natural history engravings. The image is framed by human structures and objects, but at its centre is a portrait of a walrus, who appears within touching distance. The photograph is taken from inside a wooden hut. A narrow door made of planks is open towards us, the doorway making up the central third of the image. Entirely filling the bottom half of the doorway is the walrus, facing to the left as if just passing the hut, but with the head slightly inclined towards us. Beyond, in a somewhat blurry mass, are the heads and backs, tusks and flippers of many more walruses. © Evgenia Arbugaeva, Courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery. Extract from a longer Audio Description by Eleanor Margolies for The Photographers’ Gallery.

As the pandemic grinds on, I’m back having to focus on some of those less interesting practicalities. But I know I’m going to get back to more substantial art-making very soon. I’m going to be revisiting some of TPG’s selected artists. Oh how inspired I’ve been! Especially – but not only – by the hybrid work.

With promotional support from VocalEyes, the Slow Looking sessions helped TPG to open up, rather than close down its programmes during the pandemic. The sessions also enabled the Gallery to reflect on further ways it can be more inclusive. TPG has since trialled QR codes in its exhibition spaces that link to recorded audio descriptions for selected works. The Gallery is also seeking support to run more audio-described sessions in the future. It is hoped that in doing so, more people will become aware of how audio description can support everyone’s experience of photography and art.

Caroline Dawson is an access and inclusivity consultant working with museums, galleries and artists to improve access to art for everyone.

Caroline Mawer is a multimedia artist, working with digital technologies, video and performance.

Janice McLaren is Head of Education & Projects at The Photographers’ Gallery.

Visit The Photographers’ Gallery’s Slow Looking page for audio descriptions of works featured here and more.