Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Thoutenhoofd, E. (1998) 'Method in a Photographic Enquiry of being Deaf'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 2, <>

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Received: 29/4/98      Accepted: 12/6/98      Published: 30/6/98


What follows is based on the hypothesis that aspects of a particular, socially and culturally distinct, visuality[1] are manifest in visual data such as photographs. I will explore this hypothesis with reference to Deaf people, people who use sign language and who are members of the Deaf community, using data from earlier research (Thoutenhoofd, 1996).

To this end, I have opted for two parallel texts, a photographic one as well as a written one, cross-referenced by hyperlinks. The photographs form the core, or the 'evidence' of the method outlined in the text. The photographs portray a number of pertinent visual characteristics and strategies found where Deaf people congregate into clearly defined communities, for example Deaf clubs, d/Deaf colleges, and in the pages of magazines aimed at d/Deaf audiences; yet the photographs bear witness to the commonplace, portraying regular Deaf club and Deaf college activities.

In the process of discussing the reasons for taking the photographs and having photographs taken, I set out to describe what is meant by a 'Deaf visuality', and to suggest its relevance to research into deafness and being d/Deaf.

Cultural Sociology; Deaf Studies; Method; Social Photography; Visual Sociology


Placing Visual Data

A number of hyperlinks, placed at various relevant points in the text, draw attention to a selection of photographs which are used in conjunction with the text itself. Although the text makes reference to the photographs (and their captions), both are texts that can be read, to an extent, independently. There are three reasons why the article has been shaped like this.

Firstly, through my uses of photography I have reached the conclusion that pictures contain a wealth of relevant visual information - often subject to structuring or patterning of sorts - only borne out by lengthy and repeated acts of looking, or after processes of visual analysis. In other words, while attending to events 'live' (ie. watching events as they unfold), very large amounts of visual data pass by an observer, and much of it passes the observer by, and remains unrecorded. The latter occurs particularly when the information does not find expression easily in written language.

The second reason is that for Deaf people, photography (like all visual representation) offers a mode of expression with characteristics present in visual/gestural language itself. This is so by reference to iconic and symbolic form, but also by reference to placement, spatial arrangement, viewpoint shifts and temporal sequencing. Although this article includes only a minimal amount of such cross-reference, the photographs constitute a discrete commentary on the exploitation of such parallels by Deaf people. I myself will occasionally spend some time contemplating, and quite literally gaining insights from, photographs themselves, and therefore the section with photographs will, I hope, offer something of the atmosphere of the dataset.

Conversely, the third reason is that the main text can be read without reference to the photographs, which keeps it available to those unable to call up the photographs on their computer, although they will be unable to judge the visual material which forms part of the discussion that follows.

Outline of the Original Research Project

Most sociology of deafness is premised on the understanding that Deaf people are to be defined by reference to audiological status, or in addition to this, by reference to their use of visual/gestural forms of communication. However, since such an understanding at best acknowledges a subservient or peripheral role for visual perception in the lives of Deaf people (often taking the form of anecdotal or speculative reference), research undertakings based on the assumption that deafness equals hearing loss have fallen short of expectations in their ability to address - let alone explain - the constitution of Deaf communities and what is termed the 'Deaf Way', the ways of the collective of Deaf people. The research which underpins the current article aimed to focus solely on the relevance of visual information and expression to a collective of Deaf people, what is often referred to as the British Deaf community. In the research I put forward that visual skills and perceptual strategies develop in social environments in which these functions (which include linguistic skills) are prerequisites for successful participation in Deaf community life.

In order to collect data which directly addressed visuality, three photography projects were undertaken: a documentary project, an auto-photography project, and a critical review of photographs used in magazines aimed at deaf audiences.

In the documentary part, I myself - as a 'trained' photographer - took photographs of Deaf volunteers, all members of the same local Deaf club, partaking in social events of their choice. This activity contributed 1,200 photographs (10 photo stories of around 120 photographs each) to the project. The objective of this documentary was to gather a wealth of visual impressions of the kinds of events and occasions which are the mainstay of Deaf club activity, while being guided (in the sense of being a cultural outsider) by the experience and interactions of Deaf club members themselves.

Photograph 1

In a parallel exercise, two groups of 10 A-level students at local schools, one group of deaf students and one group of hearing students, were invited to take photographs, of a social event of their choice, within a period of one month during which cameras and film were made available to them. The deaf students were briefed in British Sign Language (hereafter BSL) and in written English; the hearing students were briefed in both spoken and written English. The main objective of this part of this 'autophotography' project was to allow for a comparative analysis between photographs taken by occasional Deaf and hearing photographers. This constituent contributed and additional 480 photographs to the project.

Photograph 2

The volunteers involved in these two parts of the research were requested to select what they judged to be the four best photographs, and to provide a brief rationale for their decisions. The objective here was firstly to gain insight into what Deaf people themselves would judge to be relevant or worthy visual documents, and to explore possible rationale patterning among the results. It also allowed for comparison between the judgements made by hearing and Deaf youngsters, and finally, the results from the request informed the quality and range of the categories used in the various analyses of the photographs.

In the third part of the project, all the photographs placed in two magazines during the year 1992, one entitled The British Deaf News (published by the British Deaf Association) and the other entitled See Hear! Magazine (currently entitled One in Seven, and published by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People), were analysed according to a list of 99 categories. These categories covered information concerning form (including layout and size, location, colour and contrast quality), and narrative expression[2] (categories of content and how this related to the contents of the articles in which they were placed). This part of the project contributed another 713 photographs, bringing the total number of photographs used in the analyses to 2,393. The objective of this exercise was mainly to judge the editorial value placed on the visual material used, to allow for comparisons between the relative contribution of textual and visual content to the overall contents of the magazines, and ultimately to suggest the extent to which editorial use of photography was informed by (or reflected) 'Deaf visuality', as hypothesised to be present in the material.

The categories of photographic analyses, the auto-photography briefings, and the documentary approach were informed by social-psychological research cited in Ziller (1990), by the handbook of 'proxemic research' written by Hall (1974), as well as drawing on more general information contained in visual sociology texts such as those edited by Wagner (1979).

Exploring the Meaning of the Visual

The concern here is with exploring the terms on which the data collected can be reasonably claimed to address the visuality of the Deaf people involved. In order to link data to visuality, a few bridge-building efforts were necessary, each representing a wider issue regarding the use of visual data (and by implication the state of the visual) in social science. Three areas are singled out for discussion:

Challenged and Unchallenged Concepts

Working from one issue to the next in the order in which they were raised above, the first issue which surfaced in the research is the application of three concepts which form part of the notional tool-kit in deaf studies: community, culture, and disability.

Deaf Community and Culture

Brien (1981) records a shift in the theoretical approaches to definitions of 'deafness', away from a clinical-pathological model towards a cultural linguistic minority model of deafness. This historical shift involves the concept of Deaf culture with a capital 'D'. The use of a capital 'D' has become widespread within a certain literature advocating concepts of Deaf culture (Baker and Cokely, 1980; Brennan, 1992; Padden, 1980; Padden and Humphries, 1988; Sacks, 1991, etc.) following an article by James Woodward (1972).

The use of 'D' is intended to group together, socially and culturally, people who are variously seen as sharing a sign language, who display certain attitudes towards a community of Deaf people, who share commitments to a community of Deaf people, who are seen to be 'included' in a community of Deaf people by other members of that community, and who engage in cultural practises and expressions valued within that community. This is in sharp contrast with definitions of deafness which treat the experience mainly as a personal affliction (eg. Myklebust, 1964; Schein, 1987). [3]

Being Deaf usually means the person has some degree of hearing loss. However, the type or degree of hearing loss is not a criterion for being Deaf. Rather, the criterion is whether a person identifies with other Deaf people, and behaves as a Deaf person. [...] But the most striking characteristic of the culture of Deaf people is their cultural values - these values shape how Deaf people behave and what they believe in. (Padden and Humphries 1988: p. 95)

Photographs 3 - 6

An important effect of operating definitions of deafness using cultural concepts is that it then becomes necessary to place boundaries on a community of Deaf people: some people are 'culturally Deaf' and are included, others merely cannot hear and are excluded. Defining such boundaries is not an easy task:

Adequate statements of what the deaf community consists of have proved to be notably elusive for students of the literature. The term 'community' to some extent identifies a separateness of existence and mode of operation which people have found difficult to use to describe deaf people. (Kyle and Woll, 1989: p. 5)

Photographs 7 - 9

Of course, Deaf people do not stand alone in aiming to map a place in society where they can be seen as belonging to a culturally rich, distinct community - with a discrete political agenda. Notably, they share this aim with disabled people, who have been positively successful in gaining media attention in recent times. The most noticeable feature shared by both social groups has been the public projection of a 'historical struggle' against clinical-pathological models of disability and deafness respectively, and the promoting of socio-cultural models in their place (for accounts of the disability struggle see Finkelstein, 1980; Finkelstein and French, 1993; and Oliver, 1990). This common goal has itself in recent times been the topic of exchange between disabled and Deaf people (See Hear!, 1993) and is receiving academic attention (eg. Corker, 1998). The general tenet here involves the juxtapositioning of the practical exploitation of commonality of political goals versus the a priori assumption of Deaf experience as being essentially different.

Photographs 10 - 12

Although the use of the capital 'D' has served well to help shape political debates in relation to experiences of being Deaf, recently the academic use of the 'D' has been openly debated (Turner, 1994). Turner's comments hint at a maldistinction between community and culture. As a result, members of the Deaf community are defined by reference to expected, typical features of socio-cultural behaviour and beliefs, and Deaf culture is defined, through a causal relationship, with reference to its community-members, who partake in certain practices and expressions which together are believed to constitute Deaf culture. Turner argues that this self-supporting dependency has resulted in 'bingo-model' approaches in discussions of who are perceived to be members of the Deaf community. The main contribution of the debates which are now taking place is that it has become clear that the current widespread use of capital 'D' cannot serve as a shorthand academic summary of the experiences of those who are Deaf. This article aims to make a new contribution to this debate by discussing the potential influence of Deaf people's visual perception in describing those experiences.[4]

Who is Deaf?

Weber described how cultural practises and expressions can constitute phenomena worthy of study by reference to the value placed upon these phenomena by historical actors and agents (referred to as Wertbeziehung). In reviewing the cultural theories of Weber and Rickert, Oakes repeated that

A phenomenon falls under the interest of the cultural sciences because it is defined by reference to a meaning that is related to certain values. (Oakes, 1988: p. 26)

But the problem here is not firstly one of defining which meaningful actions constitute Deaf cultural practices. The foremost problem is one of legitimation: who are genuine actors or agents involved in the production of culturally Deaf phenomena? Only after having answered this question satisfactorily will it become possible to identify meaningful phenomena, since only those involved in their production will accord values of investigative significance to them, values which are deemed core values for meaningful participation in the community.

'Community' here describes a set of conventional relationships between agents and significant actions, but for the project, the definition of 'Deaf community' concerns the mainly symbolic expressions of a group of Deaf individuals towards their environment. Furthermore, the concern here is with visual expression, not in the least those forms reminiscent of the use of sign language, its most well-known and recognisable instantiation.

Culture is on the Body

The neurologist Oliver Sacks ingeniously captured one of the most peculiar properties of sign languages when he wrote that:

...signing is not just the manipulation of symbols according to grammatical rules, but, irreducibly, the voice of the signer - a voice given a special force, because it utters itself, so immediately, with the body. One can have or imagine disembodied speech, but one cannot have disembodied Sign. The body and soul of the signer, his unique human identity, are continually expressed in the act of signing. (Sacks, 1991: pp. 121 - 2)

Photograph 13

Sacks' reference to the uniqueness of human identity touches upon an important concept of community membership, namely that of the 'stranger'. The corporeal body is not only the sounding board for the voice of the signer, but more importantly, each sounding board is unique. That is to say that the body is the locus allowing for the conceptualisation of the stranger. The main character in Sartre's first published novel Nausea considers the human body the sole object of which we have both objective and subjective knowledge. Here the body becomes the measure of all things, and the body-image boundary, the boundary between the body that we are and the body we see out of, is the border between the familiar and the strange. This also offers a cultural modus operandi:

...'body' and 'culture' are metaphorically identical - so much so, that an awareness of bodily pollution, and the awareness of mental illness in particular, is contingent upon what we take 'culture' to be [...] the body as culture - as a locus for what we are, and as a stage for identifying all the strangers that we insist we are not... (Napier, 1992: p. 142)

In this light Deaf people may be seen to define their culture partly by insisting what they are not. This same conclusion was arrived at independently in a participant observation study on deafness by Jennifer Harris (1995: p. 152). With reference to the disability debates, for example, Deaf people often do not regard hearing loss as an essential feature of experience, therefore they do not see themselves as handicapped: a necessary requisite for notions of disability. Kyle and Woll found similar opinions in the Deaf community:

In questions about the nature of those who attend the deaf club there is general rejection of the view that they are somehow handicapped. Statements which imply acceptance of deaf community life ('are proud to be deaf' or 'are treated normally there') are readily agreed with... (Kyle and Woll, 1989: p. 20)

It follows that Deaf people will not see themselves (unsurprisingly) as 'strange' but as wholly normal, which is expressed in the quote by Kyle and Woll above. Such a scenario leads to the suggestion that the notional boundaries of Deaf communities are defined by all that identifies the strange for its members, which includes certain conceptual arrangements drawing upon hearing loss and disability - in short, all attitudes, behavioural patterns and policies which result in the treatment of Deaf people as belonging to a social group for clinical/pathological reasons. Culturally, if the body can be said to be a stage for cultural impression and expression, and signing-acts are of necessity played out through and on the body, then it should follow that visual experience and visual expression are central to notions of cultural identity for those Deaf people who use sign language as their preferred language.

This loose interpretation of what is involved in 'legitimate' community membership (to return to the earlier discussion) maps a meaningful social space in which cultural phenomena can be studied while operating with concepts of community, culture and disability which are both acceptable within the Deaf community and accepted as cogently descriptive academically.

Thinking about the Visual and Visual Thought in Sociology

Language, Adaptation and Cultural Perceptions

Deaf people's interpretations of their experiences are not in line with the majority of hearing people's and institutions' approaches to those experiences. Indeed, it was argued above that the gap between the two is an element in the notional operation of 'Deaf community'. The language used for communication in the Deaf community serves as a central example of this misalignment:

...deaf people through their language negotiate and agree on a construction of reality. This reality need not be identical with hearing people's views. We have frequently had the experience that deaf people questioned about such and such a happening will simply shake their head and say 'it's the deaf way'. They are very clear in the division between what deaf people accept and what a hearing person will understand. (Kyle and Woll, 1989: p. 9)

What is transparent in this statement is that Deaf people may often see hearing people as outsiders unable to cope with the depth of sign language meaning. Although language is part and parcel of culture, according to some students of deafness the use of sign language from an early age results in unique neurological adaptations of the brain. Sacks, for example, explains that in sign language:

One can have a dozen, or a dozen-and-a-half, grammatical modifications, done simultaneously, one on top of the other, and when this came home to me, the neurologist in me was aroused. I thought: 'that's impossible. How the hell can the brain analyse eighteen simultaneous visual patterns?' I was filled with a sort of neurological awe. The answer to this, briefly, is that the normal brain can't make such a visual analysis, but it can learn to do so. (Sacks, 1990:16.72. Author's transcript from video recording)

And, with particular reference to the visual nature of the language, Sacks noted that to him it is also clear that:

...rather large parts of the brain are involved in the processing of a visual language. All sorts of visual power become heightened, and sometimes to an extraordinary degree... (Sacks, 1990:17.40. Author's transcript from video recording)

Photograph 14 - 15

If this holds true we must anticipate that Deaf people's cultural perceptions are not easily accessible to hearing people who lack such heightened visual abilities. In considering this, it should be borne in mind that some commentators have already suggested that particular ways of thinking and knowing are predominant while other techniques are alienated in probably all cultures (Napier, 1992: pp. xxiv - xxvi). In view of the current discussion, the predominant approaches to knowledge which pervade our own culture and have, in some research effort at least, limited the view on experiences of being d/Deaf, could be considered as a form of ocularcentrism, a discursive notion accentuating the positioning of visual practises in our societies, both historically and cross-culturally (Jay, 1993: p. 3).

Ocularcentrism in the Deaf Community, and Deaf Culture

The study of cultural phenomena in Deaf community life therefore provides the opportunity to address further issues ignored in studies of deafness. If we look sympathetically at the idea that the 'Deaf way' hinges on an ability to literally see its phenomena, we should be willing to bracket (or abandon altogether) verbally-based, or rather, literacy dependent research methods in favour of other forms of inquiry. What may well be of use here is a mind open to visual elements or meaningful graphic units called symbols; in Napier's words, a mind open to the 'fundamental connection between images and imagination' (Napier, 1992: p. xxi).

Although the idea that visual perception may play in incisive role in the social and cultural formation of Deaf community could usefully be further explored against a number of published research reports concerning Deaf experience, as an approach it suggests the reduction of sociological investigation to the cataloguing of the visual as (different) experience; while such reductionism is itself not an uncommon criticism of phenomenological approaches generally, in this case it also draws attention to a continual problem in defining what could be referenced under the heading of Deaf culture.

Phenomenalist Populism

The introduction briefly set out that commentators considering deafness often operate on the basis of a prior assumption regarding deafness, in that deafness is equated with hearing loss, or is an elaboration on that equation. In discussions of Deaf culture, this assumption plays a central role in a theoretical construction in which a Deaf community can only be constituted by reference ultimately to the inability to hear sound, while certain practices and events, seen to be 'typical' of the lives of Deaf people, are treated as cultural texts (Thoutenhoofd, 1997: p. 21).

In attempting to lend credence to the idea of Deaf culture, much of the literature thus demonstrates remarkable alignment with what Fitzgerald (1992) might label a form of cultural ethnogenesis: the maintenance of a distinct social group even in the face of contradictory historical evidence. In this case such evidence is supplied in abundance by research based upon clinical models of deafness, mainly in the areas of psychology and education (discussions of the effects of the latter can be found in Gregory et al, 1998). But the notion of Deaf culture, like that of Deaf community, will benefit from drawing upon the idea of a worldview centred around the ocular. It is a form of ocularcentredness which arguably drives the performance of Deaf people in terms of cultural expression, despite difficulties in cultural transmission. [5] Witness, for example, Erting's description of being Deaf:

Because a deaf person requires as much information as a hearing person, a basic goal for deaf people is to acquire information and to communicate with others in the most effective way possible, both to avoid visual fatigue and to free their visual attention for the next activity or demand. This goal is not peripheral; rather, it is a central organising principle for their lives. Success in achieving it is necessary in a world in which effective information processing and management are keys to survival. (Erting, 1987: p. 131)

Photograph 16 - 17

This reliance on visual abilities may thus also be hypothesised to result in cultural difference. It might well do so in a process of progression, in which what is available mainly through the perceptual system becomes not only the stuff of thought, but also comes to define perception as the predominant mode of thought (despite a good measure of institutional oppression and imposition of occasionally limited forms of literacy through education policies (Gregory and Hartley, 1991; Gregory et al, 1998). If this ocular centred outlook exists, we may speculate that it helps to shape experiences, customs and beliefs. Replicated and reinforced despite active social and medical discouragement, these processes would ultimately define what is shared between members of 'Deaf communities', including characteristic grammatical aspects of indigenous sign languages.

All of the discussion before has been necessary in order to arrive at this juncture: a statement which opens up the likelihood that perceptual ability does not only result from language ability (Emmorey et al, 1993; Sacks, 1990), but the reverse also: that socially shared perception is at the heart of Deaf experience, and central to the ways by which such experience is being expressed.

At the end of the equation it may be observed that discussions of Deaf culture have been limited to accounts of often commonplace phenomena as resulting from academically encouraged approaches based on the conventional - such as those investigations based on a self-imposed demand for methods open to replication. In its most extreme formulation, such research has aimed to literally describe Deaf culture as a conventionally knowable entity recorded in alphabetic symbolism, and has not tried to visualise Deaf culture graphically in its ocular manifestations; whence the project's aims. It is in looking at the Deaf community that language - and in particular the ways in which we restrict its uses in scientific discourse - may be too prosaic, too starved of symbolic imagination, to be able to let us in the visual 'know', the Deaf ways, of Deaf culture.

Photograph 18 - 19

The Semiotic of the Image

Feminist criticism has long been struggling with how 'woman' is constructed socially, for example in media images, and it is here that useful comparison with Deaf people can be made, drawing upon the great wealth of available literature on representations of the female body (see for example Adams and Cowie, 1990; Grover, 1989; Jones, 1984; Noble, 1987; Pollock, 1990 and Williams, 1987). First of all, in both areas of study relevant cultural phenomena take place in a visual modality, with symbolic meanings attached to iconic, graphic elements. Secondly, in both areas an ability to interpret intended meanings depends on socially developed knowledge, be it that the knowledge involved and the forms of visuality in which this knowledge is generated differ radically.

And thirdly, where representations of the female body have for some time now been addressed as part of gender politics, representations of deafness are equally subject to politicisation as part of a much larger debate about the representation of disability (for example the ongoing debate about the lack of disabled actors playing disabled characters in popular soaps), which equally centres around the body. This debate reflects Gandelman's belief (1991: p. xi), that it is around the body, or maybe rather embodied experience, that politics and history centre, rather than around language.

The most clear example of 'woman' as a socially produced iconic construct can be found in advertising, where woman is fetishised, fragmented into eyes, lips and legs according to the need of the product (Williams, 1987: p. 9). Indeed, following on from this it has been asserted that 'woman' can exist as sign only (Adams and Cowie, 1990; Goffman, 1979; Goldman, 1992; Williams, 1987). For example, Goffman asserts that gender portrayal is behaviourally choreographed:

What the human nature of males and females really consists of, then, is a capacity to learn to provide and to read depictions of masculinity and femininity and a willingness to adhere to a schedule for presenting these pictures, and this capacity they have by virtue of being persons, not females or males. One might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender. (Goffman, 1979: p. 8)

In the case of advertising, this breakdown between the 'real' and the represented may be considered the effect of conscious exploitation of the fluid interpretative boundaries of photographs as messages in informational economies. Barthes wrote that although photographs are perfect analogons of reality (Barthes, 1977: p. 17) they are also messages without a code, which:

...disintellectualises the message because it seems to found in nature the signs of culture. [...] the more technology develops the diffusion of information (and notably of images), the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning. (Barthes, 1977: p. 46)

It is here that readings of photographs become ambiguous. But visual readings are never wholly open, since - as for example in the case of 'woman'-as-sign in advertising - readings depend on prior social, cultural and aesthetic knowledge, which in turn both results from and anticipates the kind of social behavioural practises described by Goffman. It seems then that we have a sort of visual lexicon available to us, which Barthes described as a portion of the symbolic plane (perhaps most closely related to Saussure's notion of langue) which corresponds to a body of practises and techniques (Barthes, 1977: p. 46). This is also to suggest that various of the elements that make up a photograph may be marked as indicators of conventional significations, a correct reading of which then becomes dependent upon the cultural background of the reader.

Photograph 20

We have now come nearly full circle, since, as Gandelman (1991: pp. x - xi) observed, it is firstly our perceptual system (that which he terms our 'inner body vision') which directs our gaze, and only secondarily social categorisations and political ideologies. Exactly how photographic elements get ordered as signifiers and loaded with meaning in the process of reading is less to the point here as are the ways in which Deaf people's culture may influence their usage of photographs, although the same strategies are involved. Much like the example of the parallels that exist between filmic and language structure, the auto-photography project in particular aimed to consider the photographs taken as photo-stories, and explore parallels between photographic and sign language narrative form.

Culture as Language

Auditory language is generally considered to be predominantly arbitrary, which here means simply that there is an arbitrary relationship between the words of a language and the concepts they refer to. By comparison, sign languages reflect iconic forms, which here means that a considerable number of signs of a sign language are non-arbitrary: they stand in some kind of motivated relationship to the concepts they refer to. Sign languages also include multi-channel signs, which are signs which:

...include both manual and non-manual features in their citation form. Thus multi-channel signs always involve some action of the hands and some other bodily action(s). The particular non-manual component of a specific sign may be quite complex, involving several different non-manual features... (Brennan 1992: p. 128)

This means that considerable amounts of meaning expressed through signs is expressed by layering: the simultaneous as well as linear expression of meaning elements is an important principle of sign language structures. Sign languages share these two features, iconic motivation and simultaneity of expression, with the signifiers in photographic communication. The elements contained in the photographic plane are fully iconic, perfect analogons of wordly objects, and they are all co-present in the picture plane.

Signs (or words) in a language can function only by their relative position and their discriminative opposition to other signs: language is a form with a mode, not a substance with a content (Hawkes, 1989: p. 32). The same can be said to hold true of the signifiers in photographic communication: visual elements may only become relevant because of their placing in the photographic frame and by their juxtapositioning against other elements. Likewise, cultural phenomena based on perception may re-surface as singularly meaningful signifiers in the photographic plane. If it holds true that quite in general nature is encoded, culturally, through language, then

...perhaps the entire field of social behaviour which constitutes the culture might in fact also represent an act of 'encoding' on the model of language. In fact, it might itself be a language. (Hawkes, 1989: p. 32)

What Hawkes seems to refer to we could call a kind of social meta- or para-language, which is an alternative to proposing that we have available, through our senses, knowledge structured by social environments. This knowledge is socially encoded, that is, relevant to the well-being of the subject; this idea, of a 'social semiotics' is explored for example by Hodge and Kress (1988). But this alternative way of phrasing, it would seem, entails that the 'model' of language itself is based on that knowledge. This would reverse the direction of the causal relationship between visual ability and sign language structure hinted at by Emmorey et al (1993); rather than visual ability resulting from language requirements, the necessity of visual ability anticipates effective exploitation through sign language structures.

Whichever is argued to be the case, the research project was finally premised on the hypothesis that graphic expression of visual ability would register in the photographic plane in the same way that visual ability is registered in language structure.


This article has taken as its subject the nature of individual Deaf people's perceptions, and described means by which the subject can be explored meaningfully using photography as a tool in social investigation.

The resulting data are of various kinds. A number of photographs, those recorded by myself in a Deaf club, reflect my own precarious, 'hearing' position in what may be described as a space suffused by visual information, visual language expression, and the spatial patterning of language interactions. These are complemented by another number of photographs which portray small and isolated groups of hearing people who occasionally turn up in Deaf clubs, mostly people learning sign language and sent there by well-meaning BSL tutors. In so far as the photographs capture early visits, they clearly reflect the confusion on the part of hearing visitors, much like my own, when faced with surroundings where the sound seems switched off and the visual takes on additional dimensions.

By contrast, other photographs demonstrate the fluent and uninhibited engagement of Deaf people with a photographer or photocamera, in forms of posing, but also in acts where photographs are mise en scène to reflect Deaf humour, well-known kinds of photographic occasions such as the public handing out of oversized cheques, and other emblematic social performances. These uninhibitions may not only result from sign language expression being necessarily embodied, and therefore all expression being, to an extent, publicly 'staged'; they may also be indicative of the extent to which Deaf people attain fluency in controlling and exploiting the visual modality as a means of self-expression.

Photographs also capture some of the visual symbolism of Deaf community life, including functions of association in posing, which re-appear in printed media as the embodied expression of Deaf community, the numerous social occasions in which this is expected or typical and much enjoyed behaviour, its mimicry on different occasions, and the comments that the people in the photographs, or the people taking the photographs, make in their references to this visual symbolism.

Using auto-photography, Deaf youngsters expressed their pride in being Deaf and being proud of the sign language they are using. But in addition, the ordering of photographs reveals their reliance on visual information and a seeming preference for expressing the spatial and three-dimensional over the temporal.

Finally, a smaller number of photographs touch upon visual strategies which are unconscious processes even to Deaf people themselves. The ways in which architectural space and the uses it is put to are organised, and the ways in which Deaf people conduct themselves and 'access' that space according to visually informed patterns could only be tentatively explored in the research discussed here. However, they provide enough encouragement to suggest that tools of visual representation may lead to greater understanding of what Deaf people refer to as the 'Deaf way' in the Deaf community.

In sum, the use of visual material as explored here should broaden the field of Deaf studies in ways that encourage considering the experience of being Deaf as less based on notions of hearing loss to the exclusion of other sensory experience, while at the same time drawing more on our increasing understanding and recognition of the visual and our expanding ability to collect sociologically meaningful visual data.


1 Which is often claimed to exist within Deaf communities: eg. Erting, 1987; Harris, 1995; Padden and Humphries, 1988; Sacks, 1991. Note that in this article the capital 'D' has been used consistently. A description of its (contested) meaning is offered further on. Although there is disagreement in academic circles of the character as a descriptive label for (a group of) people, the reason for staying with its widespread use here is that it is how the Deaf people who are the subjects in this study define themselves. For those people the use of the capital 'D' is an unproblematic and common convention within the Deaf community and this significant fact is recognised here. At the same time, the research described in this article aims to make a distinct contribution to academic description of the experience of being 'Deaf' in an attempt to find new ground for agreement.

2 'Narrative expression' here stands for the ability of a photograph to communicate informative statements upon which viewers will be expected to agree; the criteria of analysis have been drawn mainly from pragmatic linguistic theory.

3 Using fingerspelling a signer can describe a period in life during which a social move occurred, from being a person who cannot hear and who associates with hearing people to being a Deaf person who identifies with other Deaf people and has become a member of the Deaf community, by a simple sliding movement of an index finger. To emulate the sign: make a 'ring' between index finger and thumb, and place this ring against the base of the extended index finger of the opposing hand (this is the lowercase 'd'). Now slide the bent index finger upwards along the extended index finger of the opposing hand until the tips of the index fingers touch while the thumb keeps in touch with the base (this is the capital 'D'). This sign is an iconic representation of a lower case 'd' growing into a capital 'D'. Linguistically, this sign is a verb which symbolises the social move from being deaf to being Deaf.

4 It is 'related' in the sense that it is the direct result of the genuine need of many Deaf people to remain up to date with community matters in the relatively short spate of the single evening in the week during which many Deaf clubs are open. It is necessary to understand that Deaf clubs are central social spaces where community interaction can take place, and that knowledge circulating within Deaf clubs and conveyed in BSL is the main information source of many Deaf people who frequent these Deaf clubs.

5 An estimated 90 per cent of the children of Deaf parents are hearing.


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