Lily J. Noonan

2022 Non-Professional Book Photographer of the Year

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to where you are today.
I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember but I never went to college for art. About 20 years ago, a friend gave me a point ‘n shoot digital camera and I carried it everywhere. I got a DSLR about 15 years ago. In 2015, I was accepted into a photo apprenticeship under Martin U. Waltz that lasted around 18 months. During this time, I decided to focus on documentary photography and created a personal project of documenting a neighborhood for a year. Eight years later, I am still documenting the same neighborhood – the Zona Norte in Tijuana, where the redlight district is located.

Q: Why did you choose to submit this specific work to the IPA?
In all honesty, there aren’t many reputable photobook competitions. I knew IPA had a solid reputation and I was hoping to be at least short-listed so I could get exposure for my book.

Q: What does winning this competition mean to you?
This was a huge validation for me. I’ve been involved in the arts professionally for years in many ways and I know that people close to you will often be flattering when you ask their opinion of your work. Winning Book Photographer of the Year meant that the true photo pros loved it, too.

Q: You won Book Photographer of the Year with your stunning work, “Collage de Rachel Wrong”. Could you share the concept behind your work?
In 2021, I took a short workshop with Ed Kashi and at the end of the workshop, we had to present our work. I created this photobook to show the story of Rachel, one of the American women who worked as a prostitute in Tijuana.

This book is part of my larger personal project of documenting the redlight district of Tijuana. Most of the media about redlight districts and prostitution feels one-dimensional to me and doesn’t deeply explore the lives of the people within the redlight district.

Collage de Rachel Wrong has my photos and collage elements I created, a few paintings by Gregg Stone, and poetry by Rachel. Gregg is a photo-realist painter who has painted a few of my photos from Tijuana, in addition to having painted scenes from the redlight district of Tijuana for more than 30 years. He introduced me to Rachel in 2015. Over the years that I shot Rachel, she shared her poetry with me and her collage work. The collage elements in the book were created by me but based on her collages from that time. All the poetry in the book was written by Rachel.

Q: What other photographers have impacted your own work, methods, or style?
In 2006, I met Nick Adams, a photojournalist who was working at the time with a small newspaper in Marysville, California. He sought out fringe communities and people and had a way of bringing out the beauty, emotion, and humanity in the people he photographed.

I was inspired by EJ Belloq to begin the project of documenting the redlight district but I knew I wanted to go deeper and share the lives of the people I was photographing.

I remain fascinated by the work of Joel-Peter Witkin and Jan Saudek. The next element of my Tijuana project is channeling inspiration from both of them as I begin a series of studio portraits of the people I know in Tijuana.

Q: What do you feel are the key steps to achieving great images?
Have a general idea of what you want to shoot but be open to seeing what happens around you and redirecting your focus.

When shooting people, don’t hide behind your camera. Interact with them and make a personal connection in some way. My personal philosophy is “Familiarity breeds consent,” meaning that when people are familiar with you, they open up to you and you can get emotional and intimate photos.

When sitting down to review your images (particularly if you’re a prolific shooter), I keep the words of Martin U. Waltz in mind: “If it’s a maybe, it’s a no.”

Q: How did you develop your personal style?
When I got my first DSLR, a Nikon D90, I discovered the fun of shooting with an ultrawide and with my Tijuana project, I almost exclusively shoot with an ultrawide. Using an ultrawide for portraits is an unconventional choice, for sure, but it allows me to shoot the whole person and the scene around them when working in tight spaces.

As to a processing style, I really don’t have one. At one point, I tried to force myself into a particular style but quickly realized it was better if I processed photos to reflect the mood of the scene rather than imposing a consistent look.

Q: What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of becoming a photographer?
For me, it was the time it took to figure out what I really enjoyed shooting. I knew I loved shooting musicians and bands, but I found that the architecture that I was always fascinated with bored me when I shot it… and I say this knowing if I had gone to college for a degree, I would have pursued a degree in historic architecture.

I also spent a bit of time trying out street photography and within that period, I realized that what I was after was the story of the person in the photograph so my focus became environmental portraits.

Q: What are the elements that drive your photography? What motivates and focuses you?
I am a curious person and have always been intrigued by fringe societies. It seems I can never find enough information about people that live in worlds that most don’t get to see or experience.

I love making photographs because I want to look longer at the people and places I photograph. When I was younger, I would sometimes hear people say, “Well, why don’t you take a picture? It lasts longer!”

Within my projects, I don’t pay anyone I photograph, but I always give them a print of the photograph I’ve made. One day, I was with Chato (one of the men who lived in Tijuana and that I’d photographed) and he was just smiling and happy as he looked at the prints I’d given him of him and his girlfriend Ashley. I actually shot a photo of him looking at the prints and later that night as I went through my shots from the day, I realized that a photographic print is a way to hold time in your hand.

Sadly, Chato and Ashley were both murdered in 2017 and I was the last person to photograph both of them.

Q: What would your ideal photography project be if you could do anything or travel anywhere?
I have a few concepts for Cuba, a place that I’ve never been to but it’s always felt like part of my life from having grown up in Florida.

Q: What’s next for you? Are you currently working on anything exciting?
I’m always working on something exciting! From my years of shooting in Tijuana, there are many smaller stories that I am curating into short photobooks. I’m also starting a fresh element in my Tijuana project – it will be formal studio portraits of the many people I’ve come to know here.