Exhibit shows the spirit of Cambodia’s deaf

The exhibition shows the individuality of deaf people.
The exhibition shows the individuality of deaf people. Arvin Mamhot

Exhibit shows the spirit of Cambodia’s deaf

"Hope and resilience” is the theme of a photo exhibition opening in Phnom Penh on Friday, May 22, featuring 12 images of deaf people – some of who had not had the opportunity to learn sign language – taken by hearing photographers James Wasserman and Arvin Mamhot and six more taken during photos tours of Phnom Penh by deaf photography students. Deaf researcher Erin Moriarty Harrelson, who co-curated the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme exhibition, this week spoke to Will Jackson about the project which is being supported by the US Embassy.

Firstly, what’s the purpose of the photographic exhibition?
The goal of the exhibition is to show the strength of deaf adults here in Cambodia. Formal sign language has only been used in Cambodia since 1997. Prior to that time, many deaf individuals were isolated from one another and depended on home signs to communicate with their family and neighbours. These adults have overcome a barrier many of us will never have to face. They are getting an education, learning vocations or skills, financially contributing to their families. The eyes of those photographed reveal the strength of spirit and human connection.

A deaf woman from Kampot who has never had the opportunity to learn sign language.
A deaf woman from Kampot who has never had the opportunity to learn sign language. James Wasserman

Is there any difference between photos of hearing people and deaf people?
There are a few photos that, if you look at them in a specific sequence and know the backgrounds of the people themselves or the context in which these photos were taken, you can see the difference between a deaf person who has never met another deaf person before or learned sign language and a deaf person who interacts with other deaf people on a frequent basis and knows Cambodian Sign Language. The eyes of the deaf person who knows sign language look so much more alive. They look happier and as if they have a sense of purpose, a place in society. You can really see the difference between the faces of isolated deaf people in the provinces and those who are in DDP programs or are connected with other deaf people. 

Is there any difference in the way that hearing people and deaf people take photos? Do they focus on different things?
I think the difference is more related to artistic intent, not so much technique. Some deaf artists produce art that focuses on sign language, ears or mouths, or are symbolic of the isolation they feel/experience. Otherwise, there isn’t really much difference between how deaf people and hearing people take photos.

Do you have any favourite photos? Could you describe them and tell us why you like them?
Our favourite photo is the one we used for the advert. It is a portrait of a woman who lives in a village about an hour or so away from Kampot. She has never had the opportunity for education and is very isolated because of where she lives, in addition to being isolated because she is deaf. We think you can really see the loneliness in her eyes, especially in contrast with the photos of DDP’s job training and education program. Those people are much more deeply connected with a community, have meaningful work and a future that involves the possibility of independence.

Finally, why do you think people should come along and see the exhibition?
Seeing these photos will give you a sense of what life is like for deaf people in Cambodia and the contrasts between deaf people in rural Cambodia, as opposed to urban centres such as Phnom Penh, where they have access to education, a shared sign language and other deaf people like themselves. These photos are also for sale. All proceeds will go to DDP. This is a great opportunity to purchase a unique piece of art and support DDP’s work.

Hope and Resilience: Deaf Adults in Cambodia at the Frangipani Living Art sky bar rooftop on Friday at 6pm.

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