Deaf Mosaic

Deaf Mosaic: Q&A with photographer Stephen Iliffe

7 April 2022
Posted in: Events, News

After growing up thinking he was “the only deaf person in the world”, photographer, writer and City Lit student Stephen Iliffe aims to ensure future generations of deaf children don’t suffer a similar fate.

 Portrait image of Stephen Iliffe - Photographer  Portrait image of Stephen Iliffe - Photographer
Stephen Iliffe - Photographer

Deaf Mosaic Exhibition

The photography exhibition runs from 19-28 April 2022 in the City Lit Gallery. 

Deaf Mosaic exhibition features 34 large prints from the Deaf Mosaic project celebrating the Deaf community's remarkable diversity and talents. 

 “I still recall my first day at a new junior school in the 1960s. I arrived mid-term and teacher stood me in front of class. “This is Stephen,” she announced. “He’s joining us today. He’s deaf, so speak clearly when talking to him.”

At break, the kids poked at my body-worn hearing aids. “What’s that funny box on your chest?” “Why do you have wires coming out of your ears?” I was eight years old. It was the first time I’d realised I was deaf. How to explain? No words. It dawned on me that I was the only deaf kid in school.

Understanding speech in class was like trying to grasp a wet bar of soap. The soft consonants eluded me. I became the class joke: “Ha, ha. Did you notice Stephen always says “pardon”? Let’s nickname him ‘Pardon!’”

The rest of my schooldays were mostly day-to-day survival. From junior to high, sixth form to university, I’d keep my head down and do anything to avoid drawing attention to my deafness.

My attraction to photography evolved out of these experiences. By the time I was 18, I felt more at ease behind my Fuji camera. Photography was more accessible than talking to people around me. I converted my family’s bathroom into a makeshift darkroom for all-night sessions, churning out black-and-white prints.

Deep down, photography called to me. Everything else in life felt like a chore, but making images was effortless. In 1984, I graduated in photography at Leicester’s University De Montfort.

Then I hit another wall: 50 job applications and zero response. In the mid-1980s, any job involving a telephone was out of bounds. At this time, sign interpreters and notetakers barely existed. There was no telephone relay service. Email and text messages had yet to be invented.

The future was cancelled. I experienced panic attacks, and mild depression set in. My deafness was an obstacle. I knew something needed to change, but had no idea what to do.

One Sunday, I switched the TV on and – by random chance – the BBC See Hear! programme was on air. I became curious and began to watch it weekly. A whole new world opened out: Deaf clubs! Deaf culture! Deaf rights!

It was as if a light had been switched on in a dark room.

Suddenly, I realized it wasn’t my deafness that was the issue, it was barriers that hearing society places in front of us.

From there, I learnt British Sign Language (BSL) as my second language. I threw myself into a 28-year career with national charities for deaf people. It was fantastic being a part of national campaigns to improve access to education, employment, TV and public spaces.

After three decades of working in an office, I decided I wanted to get back to my roots. I felt a well of creative frustration at not realising my photographic talents. So, I went freelance and returned to my first love. I took several City Lit photography courses to update my skills and meet new faces with a similar interest.

My current project is Deaf Mosaic. It’s my ‘love letter’ to the deaf community which gave me confidence and purpose in life. A series of photographic portraits of deaf people from all walks of life; different ethnicities, cultures, occupations and interests.

As I push open the swing doors to one London’s ‘deaf pub’ gatherings. I’m as likely to be pulled into sign language gossip by a friend of Lithuanian or Sri Lankan descent as I am by a cockney or a Scot. Joining the next circle of deafies, I might sign to a chief executive or bricklayer, doctor or office cleaner.

At times, it seems as if deaf people mingle with each other across demographic boundaries more freely than hearing people do.

Why so? The answer is not hard to find: whether their deafness is genetic or otherwise, deaf babies are born randomly into families across all ethnic and socio-economic groups. The result: a community vibrant enough to bring together people who’d otherwise be unlikely to gather under one roof.

In recent decades, our 70,000-strong UK deaf community has been enriched by migrants from the Commonwealth and European Union (EU) nations. War and famine have bought deaf refugees to our shores. It is this incredible diversity which Deaf Mosaic celebrates.

I’m excited that City Lit Gallery is hosting this exhibition. Since 1919, City Lit has supported deaf people via a wide range of courses and initiatives. Now it has a wonderful new gallery space making this a fantastic opportunity for us to celebrate both Deaf Mosaic and City Lit’s work.”

My portraits range from female vicar to Muslim kickboxer, deaf-blind athlete to gypsy fairground traveller, asylum seeker to fashion model. Each has their own story to share with us.

Never again, do I want to see deaf children growing up, as I did, without positive deaf adult role models they can identify with.”


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Deaf Mosaic

Deaf Mosaic is Stephen Iliffe's first ever solo exhibition. The photography exhibition runs from 19 April until 28 April 2022 in the City Lit Gallery in Keeley Street, Covent Garden (WC2B 4BA).

Deaf Mosaic will form part of City Lit's annual Deaf Day on Saturday 23 April.

Deaf Day at City Lit

 Join us on Saturday 23 April for Deaf Day 2022: a free one-day event organised by City Lit’s Centre for Deaf Education 

Stephen will give a talk about his exhibition on Saturday 23 April, 15:00-16:00, in Cultureplex as part of Deaf Day 2022.