The Mute Photographer: How Her Photos Do The Talking

El Earl says she's not autistic, she's not rude, but she grapples with a serious social anxiety which stops her from talking.

When El Earl got married, she wrote down her vows, because she couldn't say them out loud. Her severe social anxiety disorder renders her unable to speak.

In fact, El pretty much stopped talking when she was five.

El says she had a happy, even idyllic childhood, as one of four kids from a typical suburban family. She used to be talkative, and at times, even  extroverted.

In kindergarten, her life irrevocably changed. 

"I was bubbly and outgoing one day and changed the next. That girl died and along came anxiety and a girl who was so shy and insecure who lost her voice. It just went mute."

El became so anxious, she was unable to talk in public and at school, or to anyone other than her immediate family members. It's called selective mutism -- and despite what the name of the condition suggests -- it's not something she chose to have.

"I go mute. My voice won’t come out. I work by using hand movements and writing notes."

El, now a photographer who runs her own business, says only around 15 people have ever heard her talk.

El started taking photographs as a way to communicate and earn an income given nobody would hire her. IMAGE: supplied

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings.

The majority of people with Selective Mutism have a genetic predisposition to anxiety.

"No one knows much about it, and there’s so many of us in Australia who suffer and people think we are rude or autistic. I just want people to understand," the 37 year old said in a written interview exchange with ten daily.

She has seen more than 20 psychologists throughout her life, but says not much has improved, other than the fact she is now able to make limited eye contact with strangers.

As a child, El says there was very little understanding about her illness which is now known to affect one in 200 kids between kindergarten and the second grade. Most children are diagnosed between three and  eight years old.

"Most doctors told Mum I’m doing it for attention and other crap, none had a clue but now psychologists are more aware.  A teacher locked me in office on first day of high school because I couldn't talk. Thanks to her, I’m now claustrophobic," she said.
What's Life Like When You Can't Talk (Almost) All Of The Time?

Dr Elizabeth Woodcock is a psychologist who specialises in treating selective mutism.

“Some people question if they are just being stubborn by not talking. They may see the individual talking to one person but not to them. But this is a social anxiety, it isn’t deliberate,” she told ten daily.

With intense and early intervention, a child's prospects of talking improves a lot.

“The older you get the harder it is for the treatment to work. We’ve got a few adults we are treating and it is much much harder. Like with any problem that’s a phobia it is extremely uncomfortable to confront.”

Dr Woodcock says there is  definitely more understanding now about the condition than there was a few decades ago.  She says it's an area that has burgeoned, with several books written about it, more awareness among teachers and schools and a plethora of information on the internet.

There's even an Australian Facebook support group for people affected by this condition. There are around 1200 members -- dozens of whom reached out to ten daily and were willing to be part of this story.

What About Work And Relationships?

El met her husband Travis online, and a connection flourished via the written word.

El wrote her vows down on her wedding day. IMAGE: Aribowo Photography

"She told me straight away online about her condition so I googled it. But I was fascinated and found it quirky," he told ten daily.

When they finally met, armed with a notepad, El slowly got to know Travis.

"One day I went into McDonalds and left my phone on record in the car, I wanted to hear her voice after knowing her for so long. She called her mum while I was gone and that's the only way I could hear her," he said.

After several years, El began to whisper to Travis and finally spoke to him.

Travis admits his family at first "weren't sure about her" and their four year old daughters often asks, "Why won't mum talk to nanna and pop -- my parents. Hopefully there will be a time where she can talk again and speak to my family and friends," he said.

El's children Leo and Belle. IMAGE: El Earle

El didn't talk throughout their wedding celebrations.

"She wrote her vows down, so no she didn't say them -- the celebrant read them out. I wonder what the law says about that? Are we still married?" he laughed.

After years of being laughed at in job interviews, El decided to start her own photography business. She says she's found a way to communicate with the world.

Dr Woodcock says unemployment is common among people with Selective Mutism.

“Many of the adults I work with don’t have jobs or didn’t finish school or go on to further study because they don’t talk so it’s really impacted their lives,” Dr Woodcock said.

But El was determined to defy the odds.

"I studied writing, and after uni no one would hire me, I just got sick of being bullied and treated like crap so three years ago I said started my own photography business, and I'm really proud of it," she said.

El's work includes wedding, portraits and environmental photography. IMAGE: supplied.

Michael El-Bacha is one of a very few people El calls a friend.

"To be honest I don't really understand why she cant talk. But she's so inspiring, I love her work, it's really from the heart and soul she's really amazing," he said.

"She's taken a lot of photos of me, especially when she was starting out, and she would communicate with me by writing. She also points and is able to direct me."

El's photograph of Michael IMAGE: supplied

READ MORE: Aussie Kids Are Increasingly Anxious, Here's Why

He said he often sees how people treat and respond to El. "When we go out to movies or whatever and people try and talk to her and she doesnt say anything they often get angry and think she is rude.

So I have to explain, it's a condition, she's not ignoring you, the words won't come out," he said.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au

Featured Image: Supplied