Earshot: An Interview with Kate Disher-Quill
Melbourne photographer Kate Disher-Quill has just published a book called Earshot, a book of photos and stories about Australians and their experience with deafness and hearing loss. We sat down with Kate to find out more about her process, the book, and her suprising advice to her younger self.
Kate has been a professional photographer for seven years, after falling in love with "the whole process" of photography as a teenager.
"My dad built a darkroom in our back shed," she says. "Seeing an image appear on a previously white piece of paper was magical to me."
Kate says she has always been drawn to capturing images people, particularly through portraiture and documentary photography.
“To me, a lot of strong photography is about the emotion that it conveys, or perhaps it’s the unknown in the image that makes you want to think more about the person or the scene.”
Pictured: Shadrac and Jaida, both from Cairns, whose stories are featured in Earshot.
The idea for Earshot came to Kate about five years ago, and arose from personal experience. Kate was diagnosed with hearing loss at three years old, and was prescribed hearing aids at ten. Kate says from the moment of diagnosis, she felt “ashamed and embarrassed” by what she deemed as a personal deficiency.
“I would often not wear my aids in social settings,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to see them. I was clearly affected by this idea that I was being judged for being less capable.”
This idea about herself changed when she was 26, after stumbling across an article in a magazine about a 27 year-old Deaf photographer with a cochlear implant.
“The experiences she talked about so closely mirrored my own,” Kate explains. “I just kind of broke down in tears. It felt like the first time I had really connected with something that addressed this side of myself I had ignored for so long.”
Kate immediately began using her hearing aids and “questioning [her] own deafness”. One story had given her so much empowerment. She knew she had to find more.
Pictured: Kate at the Melbourne launch of Earshot
While a central thesis of Earshot was that it would educate the hearing community about what it means to be Deaf or hard of hearing, during the early stages of the project, Kate found herself being constantly and consistently surprised about how little she knew herself.
“When I started this project, I didn’t know any other Deaf people," she says. “I didn’t know anything about the Deaf community or the beauty of Deaf culture. I really was quite isolated from the issue even though it was something I had lived with.”
The more she talked to Deaf and hard of hearing people, the more fascinated she became with the idea that each of their experiences—while diverse and varied—always contained a commonality: the moment when you learned you were not alone.
“Once I started to learn about it, I was quite fascinated,” she says. “It encouraged me to talk about my hearing loss with other people, to take action in wearing my hearing aids, developing a relationship with my audiologist and to learn sign language.”
Earshot began life as a photographic exhibition, but Kate knew the final product would be a book.
“I wanted this to be a beautiful product that people could hold,” Kate says. “I wanted people to be able to turn the pages and discover not only images, but all the different stories.”
Kate photographed more than 50 people over four years, travelling all over the country (including to Brisbane and Cairns), with the final book containing 36 stories and 40 photographic portraits.
Pictured: Tom Snowden from band No Mono performing with an Auslan interpreter at a Hearing Awareness Week concert in Melbourne organised by Kate Disher-Quill.
Kate’s hope for the book is that it raises awareness in the hearing community of what it means to be Deaf or hard of hearing in day-to-day life, and to challenge common misconceptions around the way people hear. In this way, she hopes to encourage “a more equitable society” by celebrating the many achievements, joys and successes of people with hearing loss.
“It’s not as simple as being completely deaf or hearing,” she explains. “People don’t often understand the nuances and diversity of deafness – that when you have a cochlear implant, you’re still deaf when you take the device off, and just because you have a hearing aid, it doesn’t mean you can hear perfectly.”
“Sometimes you just need to escape from it all. To be in your own world. Silent and peaceful.”
- Rosie, whose story is featured in Earshot
It’s clear that a big part of Kate coming to terms with her deafness has been reconciling her younger life, but when asked about what advice she would give herself as a child, her answer is, in essence, a challenge to the question.
“The reality is,” she says, “that as children, we can’t really be responsible for empowering ourselves. We can’t just go out and search for the information we need because we don’t even know that we need it.
“The advice I would give would be to the adults in my life: the medical professionals and teachers. That advice would be to give me something that showed there were other people out there experiencing the same thing as me. Show me the young people and show me the diversity of this issue.”
During the production process, Kate’s mother came on board to help her sort through interview transcripts and turn them into “simple, concise and engaging” stories. As well as making light work of an involved task, Kate says it helped her mother better understand what she had gone through.
“My mum didn’t have a resource like this when her daughter was diagnosed as hard of hearing," Kate says. “It’s made her aware that this lack of support is quite common, but that something like this book could benefit a lot of parents out there.”
Kate describes reading Earshot as a perfect way for people new to hearing loss (whether personally or through a child or loved one) to ease into the concept in a non-confronting way.
“This is why I created the book,” she says. “It’s really about learning about the various experiences people have and being able to know it’s not something to be afraid of.”
You can purchase Earshot HERE or your favourite bookshop.
Join Kate and a panel of subjects from Earshot for the Brisbane launch on Thursday 4 April. For information and tickets CLICK HERE.