BYU student shares journey to tell meaningful stories through photography

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Photographer Lily Balif shares the factors that have shaper her in her photography journey. Balif seeks to tell stories through her photography. (Made in Procreate by Tenley Hale)

BYU student and photographer Lily Balif hopes to make her work communicate something deeper than a nice image to look at.

“Whether it’s annoying people, upsetting them or making them feel good, I just want people to feel something when they view my work,” Balif said.

Lily Balif takes a selfie. Balif hopes her work will make people feel something deeper. (Photo courtesy of Lily Balif)

Balif grew up in a family of nine siblings with parents who encouraged them to pursue their creative endeavors.

From writers, graphic designers, philosophers, woodworkers and photographers, Balif was exposed to many creative mediums through her siblings. She credits her passion for photography to this early access to creative mentors.

Another important creative mentor for Balif was her high school photography teacher William Salley.

“He saw my desire to become a real photographer and to push myself artistically so he paid special attention to me,” Balif said. “Having that mentor to push me and believe in me was a catalyst for my passion for photography.”

After high school, Balif came to BYU and entered the interdisciplinary design program with an emphasis in photography. Balif said studying at BYU has been a great experience.

“I’ve been really lucky to have professors who have understood my work and supported my unique path here at BYU,” Balif said.

Her biggest complaint with her BYU photo classes has been that people are so positive that it can be hard to get critiques.

“I love how people see others as children of God, but at the same time I just want to say, ‘Be mean to me, give me real feedback,’” Balif said.

BYU photography professor Daniel George said the thing he enjoys most about teaching at BYU is getting to see students develop their ideas into physical work.

George said he has been able to watch Balif develop her own ideas and style this semester. “For Lily, I can see that she’s very aware of the communicative aspects of the photographic medium and how it functions as language,” George said.

Balif said the communicative nature of photography is her passion.

“I love art or media that is so accessible that anyone can watch it and connect with it,” Balif said. “I want people to look at my work and see a world they relate to.”

Some of her biggest influences come from movies such as “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-wai or anything written by Norah Ephron. Other influences include photographers like Molly Matalon, Martin Parr, Carrie Mae Weems and William Eggleston. Balif is drawn to photographers who can tell a story or create a new world with a photograph.

Balif said one of the most important things to her when creating photographs is intention.

“A lot of people think photography is just taking pictures of things that are already there, and that’s true but sometimes that can be an excuse to fall back on,” Balif said.

She said her desire to make her work intentional is what drives her to pay attention to small details and take responsibility for every part of an image.

“Even if I can’t fully explain why I kept something in a photo, I have to be able to say, ‘That was a choice,’” Balif said. “Those intentional details, in my opinion, separate a photographer from a true artist.”

Balif said she is drawn to perfect lighting and beautiful shadows, which she believes can make her work look idealistic. Her hope is to create images that are beautiful and striking to the point that they seem to draw the viewer in.

Thomas Blackwelder became friends with Balif through Instagram and has modeled often for her. “Our relationship has always come really natural,” Blackwelder said. “She’ll have an idea and I’ll instantly be down to help her with it.”

Blackwelder shared that one of the things he likes the most about modeling for Balif is the unspoken connection they share.

“One time our friend compared us to a figure skating team, it just works,” Blackwelder said.

In 2020, the dynamic duo decided to create Billy’s Portrait Studio.

“I was really inspired by high school yearbook photos from the 70s and 80s and decided it would be fun to try and recreate that,” Balif said.

The team took portraits at seven events around Provo before life got too busy. “It was a really fun experience to create work that wasn’t so serious,” Balif said.

Balif said running Billy’s Portrait Studio helped her realize that she does not enjoy the management side of photography.

“It helped me realize I have no desire to be a brand, just a photographer,” Balif said.

To Blackwelder, Balif’s attention to detail and creative process makes her more than just a photographer.

“When I talk about Lily, she’s an artist whose main medium is photography,” Blackwelder said. “Her work is meant to mean something and communicates an idea, and that’s what sets her apart.”

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