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Exhibit lets blind 'see' photos

By Liz George
CNN Correspondent

The blind can "see" colors and textures by touching the special images.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A French eyewear designer has teamed up with an acclaimed European aerial photographer to let the blind and visually impaired "see" his photographs.

The special tactile imaging technique developed with the help of designer Alain Mikli aims to bring Yann Arthus Bertrand's photography to as many people as possible.

After working three years towards a photographic exhibition for the blind, Bertrand has now added 30 tactile images to his "Earth from the Air" exhibition currently on display at London's Natural History Museum.

"When you touch a picture, the purpose is different. You want to imagine, to dream, to approach an artist's way of thinking," says Sophie Massieu, a visitor to the exhibition.

"Of course you use the same hands and the same fingers, but the way you interpret it is very different."

The exhibition is a record of the Earth at the start of the millennium. The 160 photographs capture a bird's eye view of the natural and man-made patterns and colors in landscapes.

"Over 40 million people have seen this exhibition so far worldwide, and now this new technique opens up not only the photographs but also the message they bring to a whole new audience," Bertrand says.

"Earth from the Air" was a massive project. Bertrand, 57, spent 10 years researching the landscapes he selected, clocking 3,000 hours flying over 76 countries by helicopter. The project took him to Antarctica, Alaska, Argentina, Australia, Siberia and Africa.

"A photographer is first and foremost a witness," says Bertrand. "I tell a story, I describe the world, and I try to analyze it, to make it more accessible."

Rice fields in Nepal, one of Bertrand's 160 photos on display.
Rice fields in Nepal, one of Bertrand's 160 photos on display.

Holder of a prestigious French award, the Legion D'Honneur, for his photographic work on the environment, Bertrand says, "I was trying to explain my photography to young children, to blind children, and they were listening very carefully -- there was a lot of attention so I was very ... moved, I was near to crying."

The idea of tactile images came to fruition with the help of professional eyewear designer Mikli, who used cellulose acetate -- a biodegradable textile fiber made from wood pulp -- to reproduce the photographs.

"We can play with details. It is not only black, it is grey, and it has all these kinds of details, and we can work to show all the different details on the pictures. It's why we use this material," Mikli said.

Mikli has used the material for 25 years to make glasses and sunglasses, but making the photos was a new experience.

"It is a long process," Mikli says. "I don't know how it would be tomorrow or in five years, but I would like to bring more feeling more sensations of the color to work on more details -- really to share more of this world with more people."

Tactile imaging is an expensive venture, costing more than $2,000 per picture. But to some, a picture is priceless.

Says Bertrand: "It is something impossible for a blind person to see a photograph how I have seen it -- so I know it is something difficult. I don't know if we succeed, but I love to try -- I am happy to try."

-- CNN's Sandra Shmueli contributed to this report.

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