We sat down with London-based photographer Becky Bailey who shared with us her love for her work and her family, her path to finding pride in her Deaf identity, and the misconceptions she has faced as a Deaf photographer working with hearing clients.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you?
I was born profoundly Deaf but this wasn’t recognised at the time as there were no hearing tests for babies back then. At the age of 3 months, my mum noticed I wasn’t reacting at all to the sound of a dog barking, loudly, directly behind me and she took me to the GP who didn’t believe I was deaf and it wasn’t until I was 3 years old that it was finally confirmed. I grew up near Hastings in East Sussex. I had a difficult childhood as communication was a problem even at home because at the time when I was growing up my mum was not allowed to learn BSL as the opinion was if you used sign your child would never speak, which of course is not true. Ignoring the professionals my mum and I and my older sister invented our own basic signs to interact with each other. My first word was ‘Up’ as every time I said it my dad would throw me into the air. When I was 9 years old I went to a deaf school but BSL was still not encouraged as the emphasis in East Sussex back then was on promoting a strictly oral education for Deaf children with intensive speech therapy and lip reading lessons. However I met other children there from Deaf families who would secretly teach me British Sign Language which I would then take home and teach my family. I now identify very strongly as part of the Deaf community and use British Sign Language as my first language although I can also lip-read.
What was your transition into adulthood like?
I was educated at boarding school and developed a strong sense of independence from a young age. Facing discrimination gave me a thick skin and a determination to embrace and feel pride in my Deaf identity. In 1999 at the age of 19 I went to work in Al-Salt, Jordan for a year, teaching art to Deaf children from the ages of 3-20 and then went to Gambia, West Africa and helped publish the first Gambian sign language book. There I learnt more about Deaf culture and the religions there. During that time I also travelled to Egypt to meet and socialise with other Deaf people.
Were there signs all along that you would enter a creative field?
I have always had a very strong creative side to my personality and have been making, crafting, sewing and baking since I was a young child. My world is a visual one so it seems the most natural thing for me to want to be practically creative.
What was starting your own photography business like?
I discovered my love of photography when I was student at Derby College doing a BTEC in art. It developed in the calm of the dark room where I loved seeing the images I'd taken come to life. I felt hugely inspired to take pictures but sadly I was not that convinced that as a Deaf person I could make photography a career. I couldn’t see a future for myself working in the photographic industry which seemed dominated by the hearing world so I always felt it was impossible for me to break into.
Then, at a mutual friend’s 30th birthday party, I met a really inspirational man called Ashton Jean-Pierre, also a profoundly Deaf sign language user. He took my beloved camera and started playing around with it. I was impressed with the way he took some pictures and so I asked him what did for a living and he replied “I’m a wedding photographer”. I was gobsmacked. And then it hit me, of course we can do anything we want and have our dream job. He has been wonderfully supportive of me and made me believe in myself. He taught me I had to be loud and proud and let people in the world know that I’m a talented wedding photographer. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing and I feel lucky to say I love every minute of what I do.
Can you tell us a bit about your family?
I live in East London with my partner Ted Evans. He is a film-maker. We have two beautiful girls, Sophie, 15, and Julia, 10, both whom share my love of the arts. They are both hearing and bilingual in BSL and English. You'll not be surprised to learn I have a huge catalogue of photographs of them both as well as our beloved cats, Harris and Tsuki.
What has your experience in the wedding industry been like?
With every job I learn new things and I’m always delighted to share in such a special day for couples. My style of photography is informal and natural, and I aim to capture the joy and love on the faces of everyone involved in an unobtrusive way.
Time is probably my biggest pressure, wedding days always fly by so quickly! And I'm always worried about the English weather! It’s just so unpredictable. I'm constantly experimenting with creative shots which capture the mood of the individual wedding and reflect the personalities of the couple.
As a deaf photographer, are there misconceptions that you have to debunk for clients?
Now I am being booked for more hearing couples weddings there can be a nervousness on the part of the couple as to how we will communicate which is where a pre-wedding meeting is very useful. I will bring my interpreter and we can establish a clear understanding of what they want from their wedding photos. We can discuss the schedule and this helps me to be able to plan and know exactly what I’ll need to do on the day. I never need an interpreter on the actual big day as I always have my wedding schedule. Because we have already met and I’ve taken some warm up shots at the pre wedding meeting on the day there is less stress for me and for the couple. I aim to be 100% sure they are relaxed with me.
Do you consider yourself a feminist or a social justice advocate?
I do feel very strongly that Deaf people can do anything they want to if they are passionate about it.
How do you incorporate your values into your business?
I genuinely love what I do and I understand how important and special wedding photos are so I really care about doing the best job I can for my clients. I try to understand what it is they want from their pictures and how to best reflect their unique personalities.
What change would you like to see in the wedding industry?
A move to less formal, traditional styles of weddings and towards more individual, personalised and creative weddings as those are my favourite types to photograph
If you could give your 16-year-old self some advice or words of encouragement, what would you say?
You must believe in yourself and follow your creative dreams, you can do it!