I have just retuned home after an incredible experience in South Africa. I haven’t really had a chance to update the blog until now, so will quickly fill you in on what I’ve been up to for the last few weeks.
I ended up spending a few days photographing at an amazing boarding school for underprivileged deaf children just outside of Durban, called Kwa Thika.
I spent the day alongside some lovely teachers, and got to see what life at the school is like for those children completely deaf or hearing impaired. It was honestly so remarkable to see what these kids can do, especially considering where they have come from. Most of the children come from communities on the outskirts of Durban and live in poverty. To get to school when school starts at beginning of term some have to walk by themselves for hours. (One child was killed walking to school because he didn’t hear the noise of a tuck behind him, so heart-breaking). The school is wonderful for encouraging the kids to learn skills in the real world. They have a kitchen to learn culinary skills, they have a ‘mini’ hairdresser (one of the teachers decided I would look great with a few braids, I was less convinced when she had finished), they also have wood-working and drama club among other things.
The most remarkable thing I found whilst photographing was just the silence. Even when class broke for break, and there were hundreds of kids running around you didn’t hear a peep. Normally at a school if it was break time you would hear the kids from miles away. In fact, you could actually hear the kids on break from the local public school down the road - but just silence in the corridors. It wasn’t as though they weren’t talking, the kids were running around, having fun, telling each other what to do, as normal kids do, just just all with their hands. It was really quite beautiful.
With the little ones (they start boarding school at 3 before its too late to learn to sign), they sat quietly around, and got so excited to have me there. They jumped up when they saw me and wanted to know immediately what my ‘sign name’ was. This is the name a deaf person goes by - that expresses something physical about them in a simple sign, so that they can sign their names easily. Normally given to each other from others that would be deaf, or hard of hearing. As I haven’t met a deaf person before, I have never been given a sign name. It was just amazing how these 3-5 year olds just unanimously looked at me and declared that my name was ‘green eyes z’.. they did this by pointing under each eye, and then using their finger in the air to draw a Z.
The kids demonstrated how they learn how to express themselves with different facial emotions. Its amazing what you take for granted when you can hear. One of the kids had a large star stuck to his forehead, and that was to show that he had done good work. Everything is done by sight and so expressively visual. Even when the teacher needed their attention she had to flick the lights on and off so they realised she was ‘speaking’ to them.
I spent some time photographing the older kids, and they were so interested in what I was up to. They were so expressive, and full of big personalities, always laughing, and ‘arguing’ with each other… all done by a dancing of their hands. It was beautiful to watch. They were ecstatic when I started filming them and asked them to dance (I had to write every thing down on my phone so it took a while to relay information, especially as Zulu is their first language and English is their second). Imagine that they have never heard the beat of a song, and yet they were all able to dance perfectly in unison together. They turn up the music loud enough - so they can actually feel the beat of the music through the ground.
I had a sort of vision of what I wanted when I went, but that was sort of blown out the window when I arrived. Its hard to know what to expect when you walk into an unknown environment. When it came to taking their portraits I got a little frustrated because they were so over dramatic and ‘posey’ with their faces - where as in my head I just wanted them to look at me - and no matter how much I tried to relay that, they just never understood, and they kept on doing these crazy, over the top faces. It was frustrating, but they were having so much fun anyway, that I was just going with it. And then it hit me - they don’t know how to do a blank face. For them everything is about the expression in their facial features because thats how they relay their feelings, emotions and words when signing and getting their thoughts across - so of course they were going to be over the top with their facials. I was trying to get them to be something that they didn’t understand or was a part of who they are, and when I understood that, it was so much easier to take their photos, and I realised that this was more for them, and capturing who they were rather than what I had wanted before even knowing them.
The last week that I had for myself, I decided to go to do a bit of hiking through the Drakensburg which was an ideal way to end my time in South Africa. Beautiful vast landscapes, and plenty of time for self refection and downtime… which after such an intense couple of weeks I definitely needed it.
I got back to Sydney on Friday and it is definitely nice to be home. The project itself was quite unexpectedly challenging, particularly trying to co-ordinate the portraits by myself at Rehoboth. I think having another person with me would have been particularly useful at times, as I had to take photos whilst trying to keep all the rest of the kids at bay. Within seconds I had dirty fingers all over my lenses, kids running away with my gear, jumping all over me for attention and deleting my files. It was pretty hard work! Finding the time to photograph the older kids was really difficult too. Not much support or help was offered to me, so I found myself trying to work all this out by myself, especially with typical teenagers who, as you can imagine, aren't that interested in having their photos taken.
Although I probably got what I needed, at times I felt pretty frustrated and not quite able to get what I had originally envisioned. Due to what was available to me and my own personal capabilities in an unfamiliar environment made photographing certain ideas near impossible at times. I am still hoping to have enough content to make an exhibition successful.
Now the hard work begins. I will be back in front of the computer after a long stretch of managing to avoid it (apologies for my lack of email correspondence) and its time to start the culling and editing process of all the images. I will keep you updated on this process but hopefully in the next month I will be able to send out all the prints and postcards to everyone who had selected them for their rewards for supporting the project on Kickstarter :)
Thank you again to everyone who has encouraged me on this trip - who believed in me even when I had my own doubts. I love you all. xxx