I was born in 1955 in Birmingham, UK spending my teenage school years growing up in Leeds. After studying for my A levels I wanted to work in a creative industry, unsure how to do this I enrolled on the Furniture Design course at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. During this course we were required to complete a short photography block, the purpose being to use photography to record our work. However, as soon as I started creating images with a camera, processed and printed the film I knew this was the career I had been looking for and resigned from the Furniture Design course.
Still not sure how to turn photography into a life time career I spent many hours in the polytechnic library absorbing the work of photographers I found especially stimulating, including Robert Frank, Dianne Arbus and many others, but perhaps greater influences were painters Rembrandt and JMW Turner. Rembrandt for the way he exploited light in portraiture and Turner it was the underlying narrative throughout his work.
I started taking my own photographs, using the polytechnic Creative Photography course darkroom facilities to process and print my photographs, while pretending I was a student on the course. I made many friends from the photography department, but was eventually apprehended by a technician and told I could not use the facilities any more. I was unable to join the photography course as it was not yet a degree qualification and I was therefore ineligible to receive a student grant.
After this I worked as a tyre fitter, van delivery driver and spent a summer season as a photographer at Butlins Holiday Camp, Skegness in 1977. This seemed to many people including my parents a ‘lost time’, especially as my brother and sister were both studying medicine. However, working at such a frenetic place as Butlins I quickly lost my natural shyness in photographing people, which years later would help to define my work.
The following year I sent a small portfolio of photographs to the British Journal of Photography which was published. This led to an invitation by course leader Ken Philip from the Communication Arts, BA (Hons) Fine Art Degree course at Sheffield City Polytechnic asking me to consider applying to join the course. I applied and to my relief was accepted and started in 1979. I continued happily on the course producing images that were primarily concerned with the aesthetics of fine art photography until at the end of the second year I had a tutorial from regular visiting lecturer and photographer Paul Hill.
He said he was “exasperated” with the progress I had made and was “only doing better what I could do already”, he then asked me about my background before joining the course. I told him about my work experience at Butlins and the self-confidence I had gained photographing people in public. He said working in that way is not an easy thing to do, and that I should use this ability to start using photography to make “visual narratives” around subjects that you think are important and “tell people what you have seen”.
Later that day I picked up a copy of the Sheffield Star Newspaper looking for ideas, I noticed a number of stories that featured public competitions, one in particular was promoting a ‘weigh in’ for a boxing match at Sheffield City Hall. I went to the event and the boxing match later that evening and started ‘story telling’. That day I started my career as a social documentary photographer, with the motive of taking photographs that ‘reflect the society we live in’. See https://billstephenson.co.uk/social-documentary/public-competitions-in-sheffield-1981-83/
I quickly developed a passion and commitment for photographing and recording communities of people who are often over looked, neglected, marginalised or considered unimportant. The aim was to record them at a point in time with compassion and accuracy, but more importantly elevate them to a wider audience and in so doing giving them a voice. Once these were contemporary accounts, now they are historic documents of that time and place as so many of these communities and places no longer exist today.
I ran these commissioned social documentary photography projects along side a successful commercial photography business before semi-retiring in 2021.
I currently live in Derbyshire, UK. Married Jane Goldthorpe in 2020, we have a daughter together born in 1998.