In Australia, around 3.6 million people are affected by hearing loss, including 80-90% of people in Indigenous communities. Yet the feeling that Melbourne photographer Kate Disher-Quill remembers most intensely about growing up with hearing loss is isolation. Surrounded by static representations of deafness, Disher-Quill struggled to come to terms with her everyday experiences, hiding them away from the people around her. A chance encounter with an article written by another young Deaf photographer was the catalyst for a new journey towards self-acceptance. The beginning of this path was marked by a challenging question: How could photography change our perception of deafness and hearing loss?
The outcome is Earshot: an insight into the complex world of deafness and hearing loss through a constellation of intimate portraits and personal stories. Travelling across Australia, Disher-Quill spent a year meeting, photographing and interviewing members of the Deaf community about their daily realities. Experimenting with various aesthetic strategies for each shoot, the photographs are vibrant and sensory while the book, published by Black Inc., sketches out each story in more detail and provides a wider context.
In this interview, Disher-Quill talks to LensCulture about the challenge of visualizing a sensory experience, mapping out the broad spectrum of shared experiences and differences that make up the Deaf community, and how the project helped her come to terms with her own relationship with hearing loss.
LensCulture: What kind of themes did you want to address through photography when you first started out? Would you say there is a red thread that has emerged throughout your work?
Kate Disher-Quill: From a young age, I was always drawn to the emotion that photography can evoke. I would stare at portraits, unsure of how or why I was so captivated by the face of a stranger, but I suppose I was compelled by the curiosity that it sparked in me. Similarly, I could look at a dark blurry image in awe, equally curious, and completely unsure of why it was so compelling. It was mood and tone which drove my interest rather than the literal content of an image. Still, to this day, I often find it difficult to articulate why certain images can feel so powerful.
As I grew older and started working as a professional photographer, I began to question the purpose of the images I was creating. In developing a wider social understanding of the world, I knew that there was a space to create beautiful and powerful imagery which could also transform people’s perspectives and ideas. I suppose the red thread that I aspire to is producing compelling imagery that creates an impact.
LC: Hearing loss and deafness are topics close to your own heart. Can you tell me about your own experience and how it led you to start crafting Earshot?
KDQ: I was diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing loss at the age of three, and given my first pair of hearing aids when I was 10 as my hearing deteriorated. I felt incredibly out of place sitting in an audiology clinic surrounded by images of elderly people. Around that time, I also had to see a special needs teacher. I imagine the purpose of this was to give me extra support; however, I essentially felt quite judged and left with the impression that I would never be as smart as my peers because I couldn’t hear everything.
From that moment on I put up a wall; I refused to tell people about my hearing loss and I refused to wear my hearing aids outside of the classroom. While my parents always tried to encourage me to wear them, they went along with my decision to not discuss my deafness with others, as they saw how distressing and problematic it was for me. From a young age, our social environment conditions us to hide our weaknesses and our differences. This is often done as a form of self-protection, driven by the fear of rejection and the possibility of being made to feel inferior. Regardless, we are often left feeling isolated and ashamed, and live with the perception that no one will ever quite understand us.
I did this for 16 years. Throughout school and university, I spoke very little about my hearing loss and never once wore my hearing aids in social settings. When I started work as a freelance photographer, I still refused to wear them on the job. The thought of a client seeing me with hearing aids made me squirm with embarrassment, because I believed they would somehow think I was less capable.
LC: Can you tell me a bit about the representations of deafness and hearing problems you encountered while you were growing up?
KDQ: From a young age, I knew that society judged individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing. I do believe that the audiology industry bears some responsibility towards this, and that they also have the power to create positive changes in how deafness and hearing loss is perceived.
I spent over 20 years attending Australian Hearing Centres, the government body which services those with hearing needs, and not once was I shown an image or story of someone my age, or given a resource that showed others who had lived experiences with hearing loss. The images that surrounded me were of elderly people or babies. There was no discussion about how subtitles on films and television could help me, or how frustrating it was when my mum spoke to me from another room in the house, or how I must partially rely on lipreading. It was only: “You should really wear your hearing aids all the time.”
Each time I was fitted with a new pair of hearing aids, the conversation focused on which ones would be easiest to hide—I wanted the smallest, and gave no thought to quality. However, no matter how small they got, the shame I felt while wearing them never changed, which ultimately meant I wouldn’t wear them. It was only once I started talking about my hearing aids and sharing my experiences that I became empowered to actually wear them. I now wear a silver pair, and can’t believe I was ever encouraged to get a brown pair to match the colour of my hair.
LC: What was the specific moment that provoked you to start creating Earshot? Have you ever worked on something this personal before?
KDQ: It was April 2014 when all of this changed. I was skimming through a magazine and stumbled across an article by a 27-year-old photographer, who was also Deaf. She mentioned the awkwardness of missing punchlines, the embarrassment of being a teenager and telling boys she was Deaf, and the frustration of not always having access to subtitles when watching movies. She then went on to explain that visual imagery had always been a huge part of her life, and that it seemed natural for her to pursue a career as a photographer. Mid-way through the article, I realized there were tears rolling down my face.
While the young woman in the article was profoundly deaf and wore a cochlear implant, many of the experiences, thoughts and emotions she mentioned mirrored my own. For the first time in my life, I found comfort in the fact that the feelings I had were not mine alone.
But the article sparked far more important questions: How had I reached the age of 26, and not once been shown a story or image of someone like myself? Why had no one shown me that deafness was actually worthy of discussion, and not something to be ashamed of? If a thousand words in a magazine could have such an impact on me, how could I use photography and storytelling to do the same for so many others? It was in that moment that the idea for Earshot was born.
LC: How did you approach the project in the beginning, and how did it evolve into its final form? Did you know what you wanted to capture when you initially set out?
KDQ: The project really began after I won a photography grant for my proposal of the project. I was given a year to produce the work for a solo exhibition. With that in mind, the first year of making the work was really focused on preparing for the show. I was constantly learning throughout the project, and with each person I met, I discovered a new aspect of deafness and hearing loss. And that always led to the question: “How do I visualize this?”
LC: You seem to have met this challenge by using a range of different aesthetic strategies that evoke the experience and internal worlds of the people you photograph. Can you tell me about your working process for and decisions behind each shoot?
KDQ: Figuring out how to visualize a sensory experience was certainly the most challenging aspect of the project, but I also think it was the best process for pushing my creativity. I chose to use film so that I could be more experimental and just have a bit of fun with it. This also meant I was able to enjoy the shoots more, as I wasn’t reflecting on whether the shots were working or not, which helped me to be more present with my subjects, making the experience more playful.
Each shoot varied, as the circumstances and locations varied. I only had a lunch break with some people, so I had to shoot quite quickly with one roll of film. Sometimes there was a clear aspect of their story that I wanted to document. For example, there is a couple in the project who both wear cochlear implants, and I remember I had already interviewed them and taken some photos. But right before I was about to leave, something came up about going to bed and how they communicate once they’ve taken their cochlear implants out. They said that they put their phone flashlights on and sign to each other. I knew I had to document that, so I politely asked if we could recreate that moment.
LC: Who was the first person you shot, and how did you meet the rest of the people in your photographs?
KDQ: I photographed around 50 people for the project over a three year period—not all of whom are in the book. I met them through various avenues. Before working on this project, I didn’t know any other deaf or hard of hearing people, so the initial call out I did was on Facebook. The first person I interviewed and photographed was my mother’s colleague, who was a Deaf support teacher. He gave me a wonderful introduction into deaf culture, as well as a brief history behind the mistreatment and discrimination of deaf people and debates around sign language.
I also met many people through researching various organizations working with Deaf children and teenagers, support groups, Deaf Arts organizations and Deaf Indigenous groups, and from there my network continued to expand. My goal was to find the most diverse range of people and experiences.
LC: This is really striking in the project. Can you tell me a bit about the spectrum of different issues you encountered through the process of meeting people?
KDQ: Deafness and hearing loss is incredibly diverse, and while there are many common threads, everyone’s experience is unique. It was only through listening to everyone’s stories that I became aware of how diverse these perspectives are, and I knew I had to try and convey as many of these issues as possible.
It’s an overwhelming task to discuss the diversity, because I would have to list everyone in the book, but some examples include: the various devices people use and the challenges associated with them (e.g hearings aids, BAHA, cochlear implant), the range in which people do or don’t hear (mild to profound, bilateral and unilateral), Deaf culture, Deaf Indigenous culture, individuals who are bilingual (sign language and oral), individuals who are multilingual (multiple spoken languages and/or multiple sign languages), various conditions which may have caused people’s deafness (e.g Alport, Usher or Treacher-Collins syndrome), the experiences for CODA’s (children of Deaf adults), raising a hearing child as a Deaf parent, raising a Deaf child as a hearing parent, Deaf/hearing relationships, losing hearing at various stages in life (e.g adolescents, young adult, elderly)—the list goes on.
LC: The project took you to many different parts of Australia to meet many different members of the Deaf community. What was it like to immerse yourself in Deaf culture? What was the most important or interesting thing you came across?
KDQ: Being immersed in the Deaf community has been one of the most beautiful aspects about working on this project. Using sign language and learning to bridge the communication gap between Deaf and hearing people is something that I believe everyone should be familiar with. Learning about the history, culture, language and everyone’s individual experiences was—and continues to be—incredibly enriching, and I feel so grateful for the relationships I developed throughout this project.
One of the first things I learned about Deaf culture is that there is a certain etiquette within it. For example, flicking the light switch or banging your foot on the floor to get someone’s attention. However, Deaf people also have to learn the etiquette of the hearing world, without actually experiencing it: not scraping cutlery on a plate or dragging a chair along the floor. One of the biggest things I discovered was how much of a hearing world we live in, and how little society accommodates the needs of those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
LC: I was struck by one of the comments from the projects: “I am physically deaf but culturally hearing.” Could you tell me a little more about that conversation?
KDQ: The ways in which people identify or describe their deafness or hearing loss can be quite personal, and there are a lot of layers to discussing this issue. The woman who described herself as “physically deaf but culturally hearing” refers to the experience of being profoundly Deaf, but living in a hearing world with the assistance of a cochlear implant. There is often a misconception that those who wear cochlear implants can experience the world like a normal hearing person. However, in reality it is far more complex. Once the device is off, or if the battery dies, they are Deaf. Even when the device is on, it is still a challenge to hear within many scenarios. People often describe the experience as feeling as though they exist between two worlds, where they don’t necessarily fit into the cultural Deaf world, but they also don’t fit into the hearing world.
LC: As Earshot has a very personal starting point, I’m curious about your own journey over the course of the five years you spent shooting the project. How did your perception and relationship to hearing change?
KDQ: My relationship to hearing and deafness has changed dramatically over the past five years. The most obvious difference is that now I wear my hearing aids daily, from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. I tell people in contexts when it might be useful for the other person to know—on jobs, in meetings, and over the phone, for example. I no longer feel ashamed or worried that I may be judged negatively. Instead, I feel stronger as an individual and proud to tell people how they might be able to accommodate my needs.
This did not happen overnight. It came with many tears, questions, and digging deep to find out why I had such negative associations with my deafness and what my hearing aids represented. Documenting my own experiences was important, as was sharing these thoughts with others. More than anything, it was incredibly cathartic, and there was a huge relief in letting go of that negativity. But the knowledge and perspective I have gained through others experiences is truly invaluable, and that is what I wanted to share through Earshot.
LC: The book ties the photographs together with many other layers of information. How and what did making it add to the images?
KDQ: The photos on their own are a photography project, whereas the book is a resource. I always knew this would be more than a photography project, because I wanted to share the knowledge that I acquired while working on it. I wanted the imagery to draw people into the content, which might have otherwise been considered quite clinical. I wanted people to see beauty in an issue that has historically been portrayed as the contrary.
LC: Who would you say you made the project for? And what kind of message do you hope it sends to your audience?
KDQ: I suppose, first and foremost, I made this project for my younger self. Throughout the process, when I got stuck or felt like my decision making was swaying in an uncertain direction, I kept thinking back to what my 15-year-old self would have wanted to see, and what information would have helped me.
I also wanted to show the audiology industry that there is much to be learned from the lived experiences of hearing loss and deafness, and that a diverse visual representation is crucial for changing the perception of this issue. But Earshot is also for a wider audience. It’s for anyone who has experienced isolation or a feeling of inadequacy, to realize that there is strength in revealing their vulnerability.