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Inside the Silent World – of a Young, Deaf Photographer

By Guan Tan

Isabelle Lim

Isabelle Lim starts her day at night. She sits down with her mother, methodically planning their every step and move for the morning ahead. This nightly rap is silent for the most part – the mother and daughter converse in sign language. "If there is a shoot, we have to organise the equipment needed. Otherwise, I would stay home or go settle down at a nearby cafe to work on photo culling and editing," Lim wrote to me.

The 24-year-old Singaporean is a fine arts graduate and photographer. For the past four years, she's been wielding her camera for events, visual documentaries, street photography and portraits. But she's not a run-of-the-mill photographer. Lim was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Nager syndrome at birth. Growing up, her condition affected her physical development, and also brought about bilateral profound deafness. "Hearing aids are not suitable for me," she continues. "Communication with hearing people is limited and can be challenging. Often, I can be misunderstood by others." Her mother acts as her voice to the world, translating sign language into words. 

On her own, Lim communicates in pictures. She photographs things impossible for her to express in words – her thoughts in poignant images, her curiosity in urban landscape shots, and her adoration for her grandmother in an intimate photo essay.

Isabelle Lim

Her relationship with photography started early. She, perhaps, even thinks in images. It stems from her unconventional childhood education. "My parents exposed me to art at a very young age because it was visual learning." Early in primary school, she found herself fiddling with a digital camera. Later in her teenage years, she came to realise that photography was natural to her and pursued a life in that. In that sense, the camera was like a mouthpiece for Lim.

Yet, studying art and photography in a mainstream college was a demanding affair. "I needed the support of resource teachers, sign language interpreters, note-takers." 

Isabelle LimIsabelle Lim (right) pictured at work, photographing a group of elderly.
Isabelle Lim (right) pictured at work, photographing a group of elderly.

"I learn by sight," she adds. It makes sense that she's a photographer. Yet, emotions and thoughts are crucial ingredients in the making of images. "You know, conversations can make people laugh, cry, or [feel] surprised... but I can't hear their conversations." It's difficult for her to grasp these important yet intangible things. 

For that, Lim has to be "very observant and focus on visual or facial clues" and "wait patiently for the right moment." 

Isabelle LimThe 24-year-old photographer, Isabelle Lim.
The 24-year-old photographer, Isabelle Lim.

It sounds difficult but to her, this process is cinematic. It "is like watching a silent movie". The film reel runs on and on, but Lim takes specific photographs of scenes that articulates her thoughts and observations. Lim doesn't seem to see herself separate from other photographers. She talks about them as if they were on level playing fields. She probably has a sharper sense of sight but in no way does she boast about it. "I turned my deafness to my advantage." 

View Isabelle Lim's photography from 23 to 30 November 2017, at Here/Now, SPRMRKT Daily.