With a BA degree in Fashion Photography, plus an MA in History & Culture of Fashion under her belt, Lisanne Holly shares how her pursuit of her unknown heritage helped her unleash her award-winning creativity

Being brought up by a single British mother meant I never had the opportunity to absorb my other unknown half – my black heritage. I was always curious, but I didn’t understand British black culture – their fashion, hairstyles, traditions and food, even though it was part of me! I felt left out and so I pursued my knowledge of black history relentlessly. 

I used my Deafness to concentrate on my developed skill in visual expression. 

Inspired by the issue of ethnicity, I created a reportage fashion story about an interracial couple falling in love in 1960s Britain. 

One of my photographs is of the couple’s wedding, showing the church pews behind them sitting empty. I wanted to highlight how this couple couldn’t invite their family and friends because of the surrounding disapproval of their union.  

Interracial relationships between white women and black men frequently occurred during this time, but were extremely taboo. 

I won two awards for both my photographic project and BA dissertation that explored the impact of racist perspectives on the photographic representation of black people. I won the James Lebon Award for outstanding studentship. I also graduated with First Class Honours. 

I had unleashed something within me and hungry for more, I applied for an Arts and Humanities Research Council scholarship – which I won against 500 applicants! It funded my MA dissertation, an analysis of the evolution of Black British style: the representation of black people and the dressed black body in British photography from 1919 to 1981. 

Through my work, I felt closer to my heritage and took a step to colouring in the gaps and capturing my whole self.

Well suited? How Deaf communication support and university mix 

It was the same prestigious fashion institution – but with a big difference. Getting an MA from the London College of Fashion, part of University of the Arts London, was a dream. Obtaining my BA while navigating the Deaf support was like a series of endless wardrobe malfunctions. 

It was a constant struggle in the first year due to the flailing standard of Deaf support and tutors’ lack of Deaf awareness. An external support service provider was recommended to facilitate Deaf support. But it was a series of battles, from irregular contact with Communication Support Workers (CSW) every week, a lack of availability of Electronic Note Takers, as well as the external agency administrative fees. Not only did the add-ons swallow up my DSA budget fast – it ran out before my BA studies ended – a scary experience for a fashion novice! 

After much protesting, I finally received support with regular CSWs of my choice every week. The final year allowed me the support I needed to thrive – which I finally did. 

But I learnt my lesson and decided to go it alone and opt for a freelance support worker for my MA. It was important to me to have 100 per cent control in recruiting interpreters to work closely with me on my MA course.

Receiving a high-quality service and regularly working with the same support workers was guaranteed. I also had greater flexibility to build up a team and work towards achieving my objectives. The Deaf support through this route was outstanding. It’s a big responsibility to arrange your own Deaf support, while studying full time, but the pay off is absolutely worth it. 

My advice to other Deaf people who are planning on going to university is to research the best type of support for you. Speak to other Deaf students who have similar needs to you, weigh up the pros and cons, and above all, listen to your gut. Only you know what’s best for you and what support will help you realise your dreams.

Published in BDN September 2014 issue