The Incredible Story Of How A Man Teaches Photography Using Sign Language

Posted on April 7, 2016 in Havells, Hawa Badlegi

By Rajen Nair:

Rajen Nair with students 2
Rajen (right) with students.

How has photography benefited the deaf? I have been asked this question umpteen times in the last eight years. To answer this question, I need to share my own story. I used to be a businessman until 2000 when I had a surgery that changed my life; it not only rendered me deaf but also led to tinnitus, a condition that results in a non-stop ringing in the operated ear.

At the time, I had no interest in photography. However, due to my new-found deafness, I was forced to give up my small computer business. So, at the age of 40, I reinvented myself; I did a course on journalism and photography and started contributing to international publications. My initial foray into photography was to complement my writing. But, as my photographs started receiving more appreciation, I figured that this new talent had something to do with my deafness.

I now had to rely more on my eyes to make up for my hearing loss, and photography is all about the eyes, the mind and hand coordination. So, I decided to share this talent with a simple realisation – that perhaps, the deaf can become good, if not better photographers.

I voluntarily began conducting weekend classes at Mumbai’s Sanskardham Vidyalaya for deaf children. Initially, progress was very slow. But one day, in a moment of frustration, I told the children that I travelled one and a half hours, changed two trains and carried loads of cameras in my backpack so I could teach them. They spontaneously raised their hands saying ‘thank you’ in sign language, and this gesture really moved me. After that day, they became very attentive, and there was no turning back.

Street Photography, Unleashed

Three years later, due to monetary constraints, I took up a paid assignment. But, by then, my students had become passionate about photography and wanted me to continue teaching them. So, I started a Facebook page called Deaf Photography (now renamed ‘Spreading Light Through Photography’), where they could post their pictures on a regular basis.

Rajen with students 1_resized
Rajen (centre) with students.

Since I love street photography, I also started taking them on outdoor trips in batches of 25-30. Street photography is very challenging because it requires one to click photos quietly and in split seconds, without the subjects becoming conscious. It also offered scope for creativity and highlighting social issues. This activity really took off and is a regular thing now.

Student photo 2
Photo clicked by Rajen’s student.
Student photo 1
Photo clicked by Rajen’s student.

Gradually, I also got involved in teaching children being treated for cancer at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, where children spend a lot of time in treatment. Here, photography acts as ‘phototherapy’, helping them stay positive and offering a canvas to express their inner feelings. I set up ‘Warrior Photography’, a WhatsApp group, where we share pictures and interact, happily. Sadly, two months back, my student Gulshan succumbed to his illness. Passionate about photography, he had his last outdoor photography trip with us a few months back. His father later told me that Gulshan would talk about photography in his last days as it gave him the strength to sail through his final journey with courage.

Changing Outlooks

In the last eight years, I have taught over 500 students and started WhatsApp groups for them all. Our Facebook community has also grown 2400 strong and includes deaf students, other differently-abled children, my cancer warriors, as well as artists from around the world.

There have been some challenges, of course. I learnt Indian Sign Language (official language of the deaf in India) to communicate with my students. But, despite this, explaining very technical topics in sign language has its limitations. Also, keeping an eye on my students while crossing roads and moving in crowds is not always easy. But despite the odds, my work gives me great joy and has even inspired my well-wishers to donate equipment, which greatly helped.

My deaf students told a reporter that photography changed their whole outlook. It made them feel positive and purposeful. It gave them an opportunity to express themselves, travel and meet new people. Some even aspire to become professional wedding and event photographers, so they can earn a living and be independent. Interestingly, parents have started reaching out. One father from Hubli asked me to help his deaf, and only, son set up a photo studio. I travelled to Hubli and helped him, and I am happy to say that, today, he is running his photo studio successfully. For me, this is the best reward for what I hope to do for a long time to come.

Photo clicked by Rajen’s student.
Photo clicked by Rajen’s student.
Photo clicked by Rajen’s student.

As told to Merril Diniz.