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Lily's a photographer to the stars

Photo: Image copyright: Eva K Salvi

From photographing for the National Portrait Gallery to photographing the legend that is Paul McCartney, Lily’s learned to make her deafness her superpower.

As she chats about her experience of photographing Paul McCartney, Lily’s career as a photographer seems to be a star-studded success.

“I’m actually a Rolling Stones fan myself!” Lily laughs. “Paul was such a nice man; he shook hands with everyone on set and was really cool. That was definitely a career highlight!”

But behind the scenes, Lily’s success hasn’t always been easy. “I’ve always wanted to be a photographer,” remembers Lily, who has Pendred syndrome, a genetic disorder which affects the thyroid gland and causes childhood deafness.

“My dad’s an actor and my mum was a casting director, so I grew up in a creative household. From a young age, I realised that photography was a way of communicating with the world which didn’t require sound. I’m a very visual person. I think my deafness is part of the reason why I love photography.”

By the age of nine, Lily, who began losing her hearing as a baby, was profoundly deaf and was offered cochlear implant surgery. “My family were very supportive,” Lily says. “They didn’t force me to have the surgery. They let me decide for myself.”

After being fitted with a cochlear implant, Lily went to a performing arts secondary school. “My parents made sure that I had a really good education and belonged to all the after-school clubs. They wanted me to feel included. I did lots of sports, played piano and percussion, and had a notetaker and extra time in exams. I went on to study Photography at A-level and then at university.”

However, after graduating from university, Lily struggled to find work. “Like many industries, the photography world is dominated by white men,” she explains. “As a deaf woman of colour, I didn’t fit the stereotype. I applied for lots of jobs but kept getting rejected, which affected my confidence. I felt uninspired and unmotivated.

“I was also self-conscious about my deafness. I only applied for jobs where I thought the environment would be quieter. I was always trying to fit in with the crowd, wearing my hair down to hide my cochlear implant.

“One day, my mum said, ‘You’ve just got to get out there and take photos.’”

Lily arranged to take a portrait of the painter John Keane. The shoot marked a turning point in her career. “A couple of years later, the National Portrait Gallery contacted me to ask if they could buy the portrait for their permanent collection! From there, I got to meet other artists and took photos of them.”

Now an established photographer who’s worked with the likes of Damien Hirst, Rita Ora and Thandiwe Newton, Lily believes that her deafness is a benefit.

“I shoot with analogue cameras which are different to digital cameras because, with each shot, you have to take your time before you take the photograph. You look through the camera in a different way. You really observe the world.

“Because I lip-read, I’m very aware of people’s body language. My work involves meeting many different people. I have to get to know the person I’m photographing quickly to decide how to work with them. My deafness helps me to pick up visual cues about a person’s character and how to portray them on film. Lip-reading is my superpower!

“Now, I’m more vocal about my deafness. I wear my hair up on purpose so that people can see my cochlear implant. When I walk onto a shoot, I explain that I’m deaf straight away. That way, people know that if I seem to be ignoring them, I’m not being rude.”

On shoots, Lily works with assistants who can help with communication if needed. “They’re my ears!” Lily laughs. She has an agent who handles phone calls, and was recently fitted with a new cochlear implant which connects to her iPhone via Bluetooth. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Lily asked the people she worked with to wear clear face masks to help her lip-read.

“I’ve realised that the more open you are about yourself and your needs, the better people will understand you,” she explains. “Before I had my Bluetooth setting, I’d ask clients to email information instead of calling me, because I couldn’t hear the phone. Lots of hearing people don’t like talking on the phone anyway!”

Now, Lily is proud of her identity. “Growing up, I was told I was half black and half white – not one or the other. I didn’t see many people like myself. Today, I celebrate who I am. I’m Lily!

“Over my career, I’ve learned not to take ‘no’ as a final answer. I’ve always wanted to prove people wrong. Now, I see being rejected as a positive thing. It makes me more determined to continue with my idea, but maybe try it from a different angle. The Black Lives Matter movement has also opened a lot of doors.

“I worked hard at school, but 10 years on, nobody asks what grades I got! If you don’t do well in exams or think you might have picked the wrong subjects, it’s not the end of the world. You can always try new things in the future.

“My advice to a deaf young person who wants to become a photographer is to just pick up a camera and start taking photos. You don’t have to go to art school or university; you can learn how to use a camera on YouTube. Just start taking pictures and see what happens.”

See Lily’s work at or follow her on Instagram @lilybw.

To get deaf-specific careers advice and find out more about your rights in job-seeking and in the workplace, visit our work and careers web pages. You can also join our campaign Deaf Works Everywhere.