Photographic Memories: Selected Essays, Playlets, and Stories (Willy Conley)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

Photographic Memories comes with a content warning, and it needs one. The book includes graphic images, including some very graphic images of audism and ableist discrimination. A little girl vomits in a store, and a Deaf customer speculates that it may have been the child’s reaction to seeing her first disabled person. He can only hope that the next person he encounters will be able to “maintain her composure” when she notices his disability (165). A woman asks to be listed as Deaf in a hospital and discovers that she won’t be allowed to define herself to the medical establishment. The sign above her bed says hearing-impaired. She’s reminded of the story of a couple who crossed out “Negro” on their daughter’s birth certificate and replaced it with “Black” (157). A Deaf medical photographer requests lipreading assistance only to be asked “How can you possibly handle a job like this?” by a hearing doctor (125). Another Deaf medical photographer cannot protect his friend from poverty or financial exploitation by his (hearing) ex-wife. Despite his valuable skills, this photographer is paid little and his own employment is far from secure.

While Conley writes about more empowering aspects of Deaf experience, the aforementioned examples are within the stories that many readers will find most memorable. In A Quiet Foghorn, Raymond Luczak confesses that he always felt excluded by his hearing family. Photographic Memories talks about the moments when Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or disabled people feel excluded from the human race. These scenes are hard to endure, but many readers will relate to them.

Fortunately, not all of the essays, photographs, stories, and playlets in Photographic Memories are this bleak. The playlet “Dialogue of the Deaf” presents a Deaf woman who turns the tables, disparaging a hearing woman for being unable to understand her. This unnamed Deaf woman spends the rest of the playlet questioning common expressions like “fell on deaf ears” or “hearing” as a term for a court case. “Naturalization” (another playlet) turns a nightmare scenario into a comedy. A Deaf teacher, Felicia, draws a truly incompetent translator for her citizenship hearing. The mistranslations—such as the interpreter signing “state” (say) as “state” (part of the country)—show the vast differences between English and American Sign Language. They also remind us of how and why qualified interpreters are needed.

Other odd moments are used to reinforce Deaf etiquette. Felicia has to tell the attending officer to look at her (not the interpreter) during their conversation, and, at one point, the interpreter answers his phone in the middle of the interview. Fortunately, our heroine wins out in spite of these obstacles. She does so partly by using the language barrier to cover her lack of knowledge of the Star-Spangled Banner. She signs gibberish and encourages her interpreter to sing verbally so that the immigration official will not notice the missing lyrics in her song. In “The Fire Place,” a Deaf man turns a tree that fell and blocked his door into wood for a bonfire. He shares the bonfire with a pet dog and a pet goldfish. The fish has a tiny fireplace in his aquarium.

Conley’s photographs will be equally interesting to readers because they play dramatically with perspective. The black-and-white photographs in “Watergraph” literally turn the world upside-down by depicting reflections found in ponds or puddles. The detail in these reflected images is astounding, and the bricks, reeds, or stones that surround the reflections make an unusual frame for what viewers will assume is the main image. Good art should change the viewer’s perspective, and these photographs certainly will.

Meanwhile, Conley’s “Human Sign Language” shows us both hearing privilege and mainstream U.S. culture through photographs of street signs. These pictures include a street sign by the beach that’s been rendered almost illegible by saltwater damage and a “Private Property” sign in front of an American flag billboard that Conley titles “Small Town Territorialism.”

The collection is at once a play on American Sign Language and a vivid look at hearing privilege. (One picture is an old telephone outside a motel which, undoubtedly, never bothered with ASL interpreters.) The photographs which appear in “Warm and Inspiring” and “Mushrooms” change perspective by zooming in on the very small. These photos show us the details of an orchid and of mushrooms. Conley assures us that mushrooms are both very versatile and very resilient—kin to characters like Felicia and the unnamed man with the bonfire.

As a final treat, Photographic Memories speaks knowledgeably about the present and future state of Deaf theater. Conley spent time touring with the National Theatre of the Deaf and oversaw theater productions at Gallaudet University. In at least one production, his job was specifically to ensure sight lines around a play in ASL. He gives tips for ASL productions such as ensuring that viewers aren’t distracted from the signs by other movement on stage and ensuring that viewers know name and place signs. He also ties signed theater to a long history of visual theater that includes puppetry and circus acts.

Readers will not forget Conley’s Photographic Memories. It is sometimes a graphic look at the effects of discrimination and sometimes a complete mind-bender. It is always a unique look at the United States, Deaf, and hearing cultures with remarkable insights into both human nature and the natural world.

Title: Photographic Memories: Selected Essays, Playlets, and Stories
Author: Willy Conley
Publisher: Gallaudet University Press
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.