I’m very excited to be sharing my conversation with photographer and filmmaker Safyan Iqbal. Safyan is a ball of charisma, full of enthusiasm and positivity. As a member of the D/deaf community, Safyan has had to overcome a lot of obstacles, and you’ll hear a lot of those stories shortly. But what really fascinated me was what brought Safyan to the world of film and photography. I’m drawn to origin stories and, in some ways, that’s what this is. Safyan is young and determined and he’s at the beginning of what will no doubt be a very successful career. I’ve just managed to catch him on the way up.

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Welcome to Episode Eight of Critically Speaking.

Safyan Iqbal: In 2005, when I was about eleven years old, I had an operation called ‘Cochlear Implant’, which I wear now. It was the first time I heard a baby crying and a dog barking. So then, after a year, I started having therapy, learning how to talk.

Jafar Iqbal: How old were you when you first heard a baby crying?

SI: About twelve years old.

JI: How was that?

SI: To be honest, I cried! I was happy, it was the first time I heard properly, so very happy and very emotional. 

JI: Has your family always been very supportive? Do they all speak [British] Sign Language?

SI: They used to. Since I had [the Cochlear Implant], they’ve stopped signing. Usually we speak a lot, and they learnt a lot of Sign Language just in case I can’t hear really well. 

JI: What do you think of the D/deaf community in Wales?

SI: To be with the D/deaf people, I felt more involved because it made my life easier. You know, when you talk to people, I get tired of lip-reading, to hear or trying to understand what they’re saying. I’m happy to talk with anyone but, with D/deaf people, if I can’t lip-read very well, I’m just Signing with D/deaf people, and they know how I feel, I know how they feel because it’s something we relate to together. But one thing, I get really tired, because of the process of the Cochlear Implant, I have to lip-read and hear the noise and try to understand what they’re saying all at the same time. And the brain, all that processing, that’s more tiring than Sign Language. 

JI: Do you think you’ll ever get used to it?

SI: To be honest, I don’t know. But lip-reading and hear[ing] is probably most tiring, because I’m not lip-reading everything. I just pick up the words they’re saying and hear everything at the same time like, maybe background noise, people talking, things like that. It’ll probably be the same, I feel, but who knows?

JI: How did you get interested in photography?

SI: Good question. Since I left school in 2013, all I do is typing in tablets and stuff. So I got in to Cardiff and Vale College, doing an IT course. You know, I always do typing and spreadsheets and making websites, it really sounds interesting. But one of my good friends Jonny Cotsen had asked me, ‘would you be interested in this, do you like making films and photography, everything like that?’ So he took me to Bristol, which is BBC See Hear, they did a filmmaker’s workshop for two days. So I joined that, and they taught me all the filming tips. So when I tried it, it was amazing. It’s quite clever how you film this, this and that, and how you can make it really good, cinematic, when you’re making a film. So when I’d done that, I showed it to RawFfest the year after, and people loved it and asked me, ‘how did you do this, this and that, how did you get this person to teach you things like that?’ I had so many ideas I wanted to do in the future, so I started cracking on it. And now I’m supporting the Sherman Theatre and Chapter Arts [Centre], Taking Flight Theatre, and short films of my own stuff with friends. And that’s how I stuck to it. I don’t have any favourite artists, it’s just something I enjoy the most. 

JI: Did you enjoy film as a kid?

SI: Yeah, when I was in Year 12, I used to watch Justice League, Marvel and all the programmes, I just kept watching and watching and watching.

JI: What do you prefer – DC or Marvel?

SI: (laughing) That’s a hard question! I suppose, The Flash in DC Comics but I like Captain America and Daredevil in Marvel. But more DC Comics than Marvel. It’s hard to say.

JI: I don’t agree, but it’s okay!

SI: Everyone has their views.

JI: (laughing) Yeah, that’s true.

SI: Anyway, so I kept watching and watching and watching different things, and never got bored watching that. Never stopped. And that inspired me to make a short film and taking photos. 

JI: What work do you do with the Sherman and Chapter?

SI: For Sherman Theatre I started volunteering to be a photographer, taking pictures of people during the daytime. And then last year, or the year before, I started to make BSL flyers. So basically, it’s a video, it’s for the D/deaf people, trying to understand what the story is about, and what information the D/deaf want to know, how to get tickets. So me and Jonny found people who are D/deaf, who can sign, and I made this to help promote to D/Deaf people, which we call Sherman Deaf Club. That’s based in Sherman Theatre, but we want to make it more accessible for D/deaf people. I’ve heard lots of them have really enjoyed watching theatre plays, so we made that happen, and that’s how I started. But before that, Jonny Cotsen had asked me to get involved in Sherman Theatre, and that’s how I started with them.

JI: How long have you known Jonny?

SI: I think about two, three years? I think.

JI: Is he a big influence on your life?

SI: I see what he’s doing, and I’m exactly similar to him, but he always helps me with what I want to do because he has done it in the past. 

JI: Is the whole D/deaf community like that? Is everyone very supportive?

SI: Yes! I get quite a lot of support. A person in NDCS – which is National Deaf Children’s Society – has helped me a lot, my mum was struggling and didn’t know what to do because it was the first time, with me, her having a D/deaf child. So they helped a lot. And then I moved on to Deaf Club, which is in Cardiff, Newport Road. There was a youth worker called Stuart Parkinson – he helps me a lot when I need help. It’s basically when lots of people are not aware of D/deaf people and they just try to talk to me and couldn’t see face-to-face when they talk, or too much background noise and trying to pick up what this person is saying. So I’m struggling and it’s really stressful. But the Deaf Club is my second family. Stuart Parkinson helped me with making a CV and helped me to understand English grammar and things, and understanding what it means or helping to explain what I write down.

JI: When you have that situation, where there’s a lot of people and they don’t understand that you’re D/deaf, how do you respond? How do you cope with that?

SI: I get so tired, to keep telling them, tell them again and again. And again.

JI: Is it frustrating?

SI: Frustrating, stressful and pressuring. Can you imagine, if you’re working with someone else in the future who are D/deaf and they probably won’t be able to hear or understand what you’re trying to say, or ‘can you write down this and this’? Yeah, it’s really stressful. But I decided not to give up. I have to keep going, keep going, until I get what I need.  

JI: Where does that come from?

SI: So when I see D/deaf people doing their job that they love doing, when I see them, that really makes me feel passionate about it. Because it’s showing the people that they can do it. No matter how much you can hear, or struggle, you’re showing the people that the D/deaf can do it. And that makes me feel passionate. 

JI: Was there ever a time that you didn’t think that?

SI: I’m really lucky that I had all good friends who are D/deaf, but I don’t feel comfortable talking or communicating with a mix of people, because I don’t really know them or I don’t feel like I wanna talk to them, because they bully, saying ‘you’re deaf, you can’t do this, this and that’. So that’s why I don’t feel like talking to people. But I have a D/deaf friend, I talk to them all the time, because we are related in feelings. I got bullied and I just don’t talk to people about it because I don’t know, do I trust them?

JI: Are you still friends with that friend now?

SI: Yes, we are still friends. We grew up in primary school and high school, but still carry on as friends, yeah.

JI: You’re from Cardiff?

SI: Yes, I’m from Cardiff. My parents are from Pakistan.

JI: Did they have any understanding of D/deafness?

SI: Not really. My mum won’t mind, but she was really struggling and stressing about how she can communicate with me, because I couldn’t talk. One of the teachers from school have asked my mum to come over to a BSL Level 1 course. She Signed to me and it made me talk to her, because I couldn’t talk, I Signed a lot.

JI: How did that feel, that moment?

SI: I felt happy, felt involved more with my mum because she Signed and I Signed at the same time, so we can then understand each other. Every day I do something new, I show my mum and my family when I get home after college, from work. And she’s really proud because she’s worried about me. Since I joined BBC It’s My Shout, See Hear, and then ITV Now Apprenticeship, my mum says, ‘wow, I’m so proud of you’. And she kept telling everyone in her contacts! Every single contact in her phone, and she keeps telling each person, saying ‘my son is working for ITV, I’m so proud’.

JI: That’s lovely.

SI: And then on Facebook and Twitter, there are hundreds of comments. One of them, ‘you make me not give up, you are a D/deaf role model to all my kids’, that’s what all the people were saying on there.

JI: Do you think you’re a D/deaf role model?

SI: Oh, yes! I think it’s really important, because any kids who are not seeing a person who works in, like, ITV like me, they won’t be able to work there in the future. They don’t know what they want to do, if they haven’t seen it. Some people have told me that I am the only D/deaf person who has worked for ITV in Wales.

JI: Wow!

SI: Y’know, there are loads of D/deaf people working there in England, but not in Wales. I’ve worked hard. Every day I learn things, I don’t have time to sleep. I sleep for a few hours, but I want to learn, get all the work done. For example, you’re talking about picking a camera, but you don’t realise what you’ve brought or how it works. So I learnt that every day, a few words a day and explained what they stand for. And two weeks later, I know them all. I want to get prepared, ready. When you go out on location with filming, if someone asks me a word, I know the word and how it works, that kind of thing.

JI: Were they surprised that you knew?

SI: (laughing) Yeah! Dafydd, who’s one of the producers on the TV, we sat down for a catch up, and he opened a book and he pointed, ‘do you know what that is?’ And I just explained to them and he didn’t realise, he was surprised.

JI: Do you enjoy proving people wrong?

SI: Yes! It’s fun doing that. (Jafar laughs) Really!

JI: Why is it fun?

SI: You know, when everyone says you can’t do this, you can’t do that, but I’m doing something and I’ve showed them, ‘this is what I’ve done’, that’s something I enjoy, I don’t know why.

JI: Yeah, no, that’s good! You said you were a D/deaf role model – do you think you’re a South Asian role model? Because there aren’t a lot of Asian artists in Wales.

SI: I’ve never thought about that. It’s the first time you’ve asked me that question, I never thought about that. But, why not? I can be.

JI: Do you think you have a responsibility as a D/deaf person for other D/deaf people?

SI: Yes, because I think it’s really important for the young D/deaf people. They’re in schools, colleges, university and they’re not really supported.

JI: In what way?

SI: Communication. So you don’t want to sit talking to a D/deaf person, people turn their face away and start talking. Or you gave them a really hard word they’ve never heard of, or you have your hand covering your mouth when you’re talking. How can they lip-read if you can’t see their faces? My response is, I want to help these people, to make it easier and more accessible.

JI: Was that your experience at school, with teachers? Was it not supportive?

SI: Yes. With a hearing teacher, I feel like they’re not aware of D/deaf people. I think they first time they tried it with D/deaf people, you can be nervous and you cover your mouth. And also, a teacher keeps writing on the whiteboard. How can I see his face, you know?! Or the students in my class make so much noise and I’m trying to concentrate on the person. And also, they just talk too fast, they don’t slow down. They make the work harder. And in college, they just get angry.

JI: Really?

SI: Angry for no reason, you know. For example, I was in a class and he was talking too fast. He made the work so much more difficult. I’d never heard of a word, how could I understand what it means? So I put my hand up and asked the teacher, ‘could you slow down for me, please, and explain what that means?’ He stood up and shouted at me, he sent me out of the room.

JI: Did he know you were D/deaf?

SI: Yeah. And he said, ‘awh, that’s because my first language is Spanish’. Come on! It’s nothing to do with language, you have to find different ways to communicate. I want to make it better, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

JI: What do you think can be done to make it better?

SI: To make it better, we need an awareness week, for social media. And they need to go to courses and learn Sign Language, Level 1, 2 and 3. Learning the basics so when you come to college, school, you Sign, you talk more in Sign.

JI: Have you gone back to your old school?

SI: Yes, I went back there three, four times, I think. 

JI: Has it improved?

SI: A few times before, no. But last year, I came back because one of the old teachers, Mrs Postans, she’s retired for the Deaf Unit of the school, so we had a surprise party. For the first time, finally, a lot of teachers, they started Signing properly.

JI: Oh, wow.

SI: So I’m really happy. Finally they’ve started doing proper BSL. They’re doing the right way of Signing instead of Signing Makaton. We don’t want that, we want proper BSL. So that’s the first time I’ve seen that in the last year, in a party in school. I feel like things are improving, getting better, but what I want is all the teachers to Sign a few basic phrases in the classroom, and all the hearing people to try and Sign.

JI: Do you think BSL should be taught in schools like other languages?

SI: Yes, they should. Because for loads of D/deaf people, their first language is BSL, and then English, and then different languages. But I feel it needs to be taught more in school. 

JI: What about in the arts? So you’ve worked with the Sherman, you’ve worked with ITV, is there anything that could be improved there?

SI: To be honest with you, in Sherman Theatre the first time, they struggled. A few months later, they started knowing more and more, because we had an interpreter and some people started to learn, and it’s improved better. But ITV, they respect me, they get everything I need. So when I talk to people, they slow down when they talk, they show their face, they make sure of everything I need, make sure I feel included with ITV. ITV staff never said no when I need help. When you’re stuck in the barriers, you’re stuck but they try different ways to jump over, finding different ways to adapt to work, trying different ways of doing it. But ITV were the only one that never said no.

JI: Have you heard a lot of ‘no’ in your life?

SI: Yes. It’s just ‘no’. That’s all I can hear – ‘no’. Or, ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘I can’t be bothered to help you’. All things that I hear from other people. But not ITV.

JI: That’s brilliant. 

SI: I wanna say something else.

JI: Yeah!

SI: Have you ever heard of Cardiff Deaf Creative Hands?

JI: No!

SI: So we started that last year.

JI: Okay.

SI: So basically, loads of D/deaf children with hearing parents who are really struggling, really angry and upset because school, teachers, college, they don’t give the right support for a D/deaf child. So I am volunteering in a group called Cardiff Deaf Creative Hands – they are based in Newport Road, Cardiff Deaf Centre. The reason I’m involved is because I don’t want all the D/deaf children to become what I have in my past experience. We go through communication, hearing, all those things.

JI: What do you do?

SI: So my job is to be trustee and a filmmaker and promote Sign Language videos, and helping to fundraise, raising money.

JI: And how many people are there, how many volunteers?

SI: At the start it’s only a few, but now it’s getting bigger. I think it’s more than six people volunteering. 

JI: And everyone is D/deaf?

SI: No, we have a mix of hearing and D/deaf people, but we’ve merged together so that we can then help to make sure that all the D/deaf children get the right support, know how to make friends, the right communication. I think Cardiff Deaf Creative Hands is one of the most important things for a D/deaf child. We have to support them to make sure everything is okay. 

JI: I should say…Julia, hello.

Julia Robinson: Hello.

JI: You are the BSL Interpreter today.

JB: I am the BSL interpreter today, yes.

JI: Thank you so much for everything.

JB: Thank you.

JI: And thank you, Safyan.

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