Marisa Sarto

Photographer Marisa Sarto was born with moderate hearing loss. At age 1 ½, she was fitted with her first pair of hearing aids. Her hearing loss would come to shape all aspects of her life and serve as inspiration for her latest photojournalism project, “Hear Nor There: Images of an Invisible Disability.”

The project, which tells the stories of hard of hearing (HOH) individuals through word and image, took root in Marisa’s college years. About three years ago, while studying film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marisa decided to commit herself to working with the hearing loss community. She was voted on the board of trustees for Wisconsin’s Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), took part in the 2010 Wisconsin Walk4Hearing, and attended leadership training at HLAA headquarters in Maryland so she could establish an HLAA Chapter in Madison.

Graduation didn’t stop Marisa’s involvement in HLAA. Earlier this year, she attended the HLAA Convention 2012, which turned out to be a life-changing experience. For the first time, she met young HOH people like herself and never felt more connected. Wanting other young adults to experience this for themselves, she and fellow convention goers launched a campaign called “100 Portland,” whose goal is to welcome 100 new young adults to next year’s convention.

In the meantime, Marisa has a bigger project in the works.

After graduating and entering the “real world,” Marisa began thinking about change. Society was hardly designed for people like her, people who can’t hear every sound perfectly. There were times when she felt lonely because of her hearing loss. Did she need to change herself? Her world? Both? She considered her identity in this “real world”—a woman growing up with hearing loss who often felt self-conscious and set apart from others—and asked herself how she might she use her talents to bring this human drama to life and, at the same time, make the world a better place. The answer lay in her passion for photography.

As a child, Marisa took her point-and-shoot digital camera everywhere she went. She liked the idea of capturing moments that would never happen in the same way again and sharing them with others. Now, thanks to her years of involvement in the hearing loss community, Marisa had a subject about which she was passionate as well. And so, the “Hear Nor There” project was born.

“Hear Nor There” will combine photographs with personal interviews to show the hearing world how this little-understood disability shapes the daily lives of HOH individuals. “Deep within the colorful spaces of our world,” Marisa explained, “there is a gray area that creates a misfit place for people who are hard of hearing. It is common for this place to be invisible by the perfect eye, and unheard by the perfect ear, but it is a loud and vibrant community that, to an ability-driven society, is neither here, nor there.”

Upon completion, the project will be a documentary monograph showcasing HOH individuals from all generations who strive to maintain productive and exciting lives. It will explore comfort and discomfort, joy and sorrow, with an emphasis on personal triumphs that may appear insignificant to the hearing community but, when viewed through a different lens, are life-affirming to someone who is HOH. By telling personal stories of HOH individuals, Marisa will explore various issues related to quality of life, such as financial challenges, effects on relationships and emotional health, embarrassing situations, and lost opportunities.

“Hear Nor There” is also a campaign for change. According to Marisa, the project will demonstrate how advances in technology and behavioral changes in society help to improve the quality of life of HOH people. “I want my society to embrace each other in community,” she explained. “I want my project to create awareness, spread knowledge, and grow a community…. We are all connected.”

To track Marisa’s progress with the “Hear Nor There” project and to view her growing collection of images, check out her tumblr page here.