I was diagnosed with a mild to moderate hearing loss at three years of age and given my first pair of hearing aids when I was 10, as my hearing declined. You can imagine how out of place I felt as a child sitting in an audiology clinic surrounded by images of elderly people. At the same time I was also referred to a special needs teacher. All it took was a couple of sessions for me to get the impression that I would never be as smart as my peers because I couldn’t hear everything. Meanwhile my parents were told I would ‘never be a party girl’.
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 the classroom. While my parents always tried to encourage me to wear my hearing aids, they went along with my decision not to 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. It is often done as a form of self-protection, and due to the fear of rejection and being made to feel inferior. Regardless, we are often left feeling isolated, 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 a social setting. When I started work as a freelance photographer, I still refused to wear them on a job. The thought of a client seeing me with hearing aids made me squirm with embarrassment as I believed they would somehow think I was less capable.
It was April 2014 when all this changed. I was skimming through a magazine and stumbled upon 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 realised there were tears rolling down my face.
While the young woman in the article was profoundly deaf with two cochlear implants, 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. How had I reached the age of 26 and not once realised there were other people like myself and that deafness was actually worthy of discussion, not something to be ashamed of?
I knew immediately that this article had changed my life irrevocably. Not only had it shifted my perspective, but it made me question something far more significant. 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?
I understood the power of visual storytelling. It is what inspired me to study visual communications and led me to pursue a career in photography. And so began my five year journey to complete Earshot. A project to take deafness and hearing loss out of the audiology clinic and into the lives of the countless number of people affected by it. To show the faces of the young Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) who our society has neglected to acknowledge. A project that would educate, inspire and connect us all.
During this time I have photographed and interviewed up to 50 d/Deaf and HoH contributors and family members. What started as a photography project, and exhibited in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, has now developed into a permanent and tangible record of visual and written stories.
The driving force behind this project was to create something that would have helped me to accept my deafness much earlier in my life. Something that I could have read as a 10 year old, sitting in that waiting room about to be given my first pair of hearing aids. Something that, at 15, my then boyfriend could have given me as a gift after I finally admitted to him that I had hearing aids. Something that I could have been shown at university when I was 20, as I struggled to hear the lectures because of my refusal to wear my third, and even smaller pair, of hearing aids. Something that, at 25, a colleague could have mentioned seeing in a bookshop after noticing I wasn’t responding to everything she said.
I have had the honour of meeting, photographing and sharing experiences with the incredible people whose stories fill the pages of Earshot. Without their generosity and openness, this book would not have been possible. Their stories reveal the heartbreak, the joy, the struggles, the achievements, and the complexity of deafness.
In sharing their stories, Earshot aims to break down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’. To build understanding and compassion. To inspire, empower and to help us understand that there is strength in revealing our vulnerability. To show us that diversity enriches our society and that it is something to be celebrated.