Between the Silence

Patricia Krivanek

2021 - Ongoing

At six years old, my son Milo* was diagnosed with Selective Mutism, a severe anxiety disorder that robs him of speech in environments he finds stressful. At home, he speaks openly and with ease. In a sense, Milo experiences a double life over which he has no control; only those closest to him see the whole picture. Between the Silence explores my family’s experience as we navigate the path between the light and the dark; the joy and despair; the sound and the silence.

Milo spent three years unable to express himself outside of our home, before we finally found the answer for which we had desperately searched; a name for our experience. His diagnosis signalled the beginning of a journey for our family. While we now understood what was happening, we were heartbroken to learn that our son was paralysed with fear when he was away from us. I had to endure the guilt of not knowing sooner while at the same time, step up and become all of the things Milo needed his mother to be.

This project began as a therapeutic practice for both myself and my son. Initially, I sought to create a visual tool to discuss emotionally complex topics with a young child. Photography is my way of processing the world, so I turned the lens inward: to document us, to understand him, to feel what he felt. Knowing the power of photography as a therapeutic tool, I armed Milo with a simple Instax camera; a new means to express himself and explore the world. His photos became conversation starters for bigger themes. The images we took together captured a narrative that I had not previously considered. They transformed a project about our little boy into a story about our family. Anxiety is a contagious beast. It has left its mark on us all.

Between the Silence is a participatory, evolving project that uses a combination of documentary and posed photos, including self-portraits, taken by myself and my son. Images made by Milo are distinguished by using an Instax camera and are set alongside my images for context. I also use his drawings and notes to give a sense of personhood to the images. By using different modes of storytelling, I seek to create a tactile and sensory experience for the viewer and bring Milo’s voice into the process.

My inspiration stems from nature; its resilience and ability to heal. Studies have proven that spending time in nature lowers stress and increases happiness. I found myself drawn to nature this year more than ever before and it organically became part of the process. I find inspiration in the colours, patterns and textures.

The PH Museum Women Photographers Grant will enable me to continue to take images of our story; one that touches upon themes prevalent in today’s society. I would like to continue to build what my son and I have started; including and encouraging his visions and thoughts for our project. I would like to use this work to raise awareness of Selective Mutism and child anxiety.

* For privacy, I use my children’s middle names.

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  • The Embrace.
    A self portrait of Patricia and Milo embracing in their home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Ever since Milo was young, people would often take note of how hard it was for him to be away from his parents. Children with Selective Mutism often suffer from separation anxiety.

  • I Hate Anxiety.
    A painting of a rainbow with notes about anxiety frames an Instax image of Milo’s calming station in our home. One of the most common misconceptions of Selective Mutism (SM) is that it can be outgrown. If left untreated, SM can continue into adulthood increasing risks of social exclusion, academic underperformance and high rates of depression. The most important strategies to overcoming SM are acceptance and learning coping strategies.

  • Home.
    Milo jumps off the bed with his brother Kai looking on in the background. At home, the two boys make everything their playground. Home is Milo’s safe space where he can run, scream, laugh, cry and be himself fully.

  • Note to Self.
    On the left, a note of affirmation written by Milo. On the right, a portrait of Milo in tears. Anxiety comes with real physical symptoms that can feel very scary. Children with anxiety need to learn that they will be ok and they will get through it. Finding one’s brave voice is a common term that therapists use when discussing SM.

  • Coffee Stains.
    Milo leans against the counter next to spilled coffee. As part of the therapeutic process, Patricia captures images of her surroundings that speak to her and her experience. Anxiety is contagious and Patricia found herself having anxiety about Milo’s anxiety.

  • Fish in the Sky.
    Milo and Kai dangle their feet above a Coi pond in Langkawi, Malaysia. Navigating Milo’s anxiety was very disorienting for our family and it turned our lives upside down. In a dance between light and darkness, playfulness and weight, we find our balance in this precarious moment.

  • Free to Be.
    Milo is confidently suspended in the air above his brother and dad. In his safe space, he feels free to explore and express himself openly. Only those close to him get to see him this way.

  • Beneath the Surface.
    On the left, Milo covers his face in distress. On the right a young plant displays its intertwining roots underneath fresh leaves. In nature, we often see the blooms of the plants without seeing what is going on under the surface. But while fragile, there is also strength in their resilience, just like children.

  • Roots.
    With arms and legs intertwined like the roots of a tree, dad plays with the boys in our home. As we look at our children, the lines blur of where we end and they begin.

  • Foliage.
    Milo (left) and Kai (right) embrace outside their home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Similar in stature and appearance but distinct in character, the brothers grow together like individual leaves collect to create foliage; appearing simultaneously mighty and delicate.

  • Pieces of Milo.
    Milo's images with his descriptions are taped to a piece of paper. Outside of our home, Milo is often not able to describe himself out loud. Using photography as a tool for communication, Noah explores pieces of himself that he wishes people knew.

  • Clouds.
    Milo (right) and Kai gaze into a lake near our home in Kuala Lumpur. In the past year, we have been drawn into nature for healing. We learn how to slow down, how to observe and how to let go.

  • Weaving History.
    On the left, a photo of Milo and a photo of his father as a child are weaved together. On the right, father and son embrace. While not well understood, Selective Mutism is thought to be genetic, with anxiety running in the family. Naturally, we see reflections of ourselves in our children - the good and the bad.

  • Kai.
    Kai (right) embraces his brother protectively. For an entire year, Kai mimicked Milo's behaviour by abstaining from speaking at school. As both an act of solidarity as well as a response to feelings of exclusion, Kai reflects on himself in this new space. Eventually he transitioned to the role of interpreter and protector.

  • Childhood Dreams.
    Milo licks a popsicle in a moment of pure unselfconscious joy. As part of the polarity inherent in Selective Mutism, Patricia aims to show the side of Milo that only those closest to him get to witness.

  • Shades of Green.
    On the left, an image of Milo’s stuffed rabbit, on the right, Milo floating in the swimming pool. Milo played with a green filter on the Instax to capture his rabbit in a happy mood. On the other side, the swimming pool has become a sanctuary for Milo to gain confidence and find calm.

  • A Long Road.
    Milo hides his face under a parenting book about child anxiety. Receiving the diagnosis of Selective Mutism was only the beginning of a long road. Creating a network of support and becoming an advocate for his needs on a daily basis consumes an enormous amount of time and energy.

  • Brothers.
    Milo and Kai lock eyes while they play. Together, they have built an imaginary world that nobody else is a part of. Their rules govern their play, their stories shape their experiences and their characters become a part of themselves. Together they navigate imagination and reality with a close bond only brothers can have.

  • A Family Portrait.
    A family portrait in bed. Mutism is only one of many manifestations of anxiety but an almost universal symptom is an inability to sleep. For Milo, sleep is often illusive and to cope, we have spent countless sleepless nights all squeezed together in our bed.

  • Rainbows and Shadows.
    In the image on the left, Milo (back) and Kai pose in our home in Kuala Lumpur to capture the rainbows that appear in our home. On the right, Milo's image captures our shadows outside our home. When we pay attention, the fluctuations between light and darkness appear.