Adventure

Profoundly deaf, profoundly blessed

Words and photography by Willos Callaghan

I was born profoundly deaf. I have two deaf brothers, deaf parents and deaf grandparents. Auslan, Australian Sign Language, is our first language.

Growing up in Campbelltown, New South Wales, we travelled as a family every summer to the South Coast, staying at various beaches along the way. Although home wasn’t too far from the ocean, I never felt connected to it, except for on those memorable family trips. When, at the age of 11, my parents revealed we were moving north to Tweed Heads for a warmer lifestyle, I was thrilled – coastal living wouldn’t just be for the summer anymore.

It was a move that would change my life.

My eldest brother, a keen body-boarder, taught me how to handle the surf. It was this process that allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the ocean. The power and vibrations of surging waves were intoxicating, the fizz of white water enlivening. You didn’t need to be able to hear in order to listen to the ocean.

The ocean quickly became an obsession. My parents would drive me to the beach most days after school as well as on weekends. They would patiently sit in their car for hours waiting for me to come out of the water, often after sunset. When I was old enough I would ride my bike from Tweed Heads to the water’s edge, one hand on the handlebars, the other gripping my bodyboard.

Then there were the special trips around the Gold Coast with my brother, full of open roads and barrelling waves. We would often admire beautiful waves from afar, letting them roll in untouched by man or board. Trips would centre around the pursuit of perfect swells, and we talked about waves as things of grace and wonder.

Much like the rollers that I chased, life had a steady rhythm to it. The ocean and me. And so it continued for many years, the connection growing ever stronger, my bodyboarding skills developing. But frustration grew too, like clouds tumbling in from the horizon to end a sunny day. My inability to share the beauty of the ocean with others bothered me. Friends had no concept of life within a wave, or the tricks achievable on a bodyboard.

I needed a camera.

The first camera I took into the water with me was a GoPro. I’d anticipated gnarly footage of collapsing waves and thrashing ocean. The sea was as flat as a lake on a still summer’s day, not a hint of a swell. I went out regardless. Downloading the images later that evening, I was in awe of how beautiful the water was when frozen in time. The still weather revealed a part of the ocean to me that I had never encountered before. I started planning my next trip immediately, the shots I would take. I went back day after day, in calm seas and swell that brought you to your knees. I soon realised I had found a new passion.

Eventually the GoPro reached its limitations and I invested in a Canon 5D Mark III and an Aquatech housing. With no prior training, it was once again about practice, about hitting the water every day. I am still learning, but content with the journey I have made and the direction my photography is headed. I had finally found my true passion, something that I could do for the rest of my life without tiring of it.

Deafness does bring a certain peril when it comes to life in the blue. Communication with other people is difficult, whether that’s other photographers, surfers or bodyboarders. I have doubtless accidently ‘ignored’ others, such as surfers hurtling my way. That said, I am extremely sensitive to visual cues, often picking up on unfolding scenarios before others. The sharpness of my vision certainly benefits my photography. The inability to hear others probably does too, freeing me from distractions, focussing my mind on the ocean, its beauty and the images on offer on any particular day.

I’ve been blessed to have my photos appear on billboards across Australia, at bus stops and in bars. They have featured on the walls of international cafes, hung over busy freeways and even been painted as murals.

The ocean is everything to me – a reassuring ever-presence. When I lost both my parents to cancer, the ocean offered a welcoming embrace; when I battled with anxiety and depression, it was a place of distracting freedom. It was always there, as was my photography. It is where I belong.

I drive up and down the coast almost every day in search of waves and beauty.

I don’t do it for the money. I do it for me.

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