The Warrior Project: The Lady Behind the Lens
by Laura Storey
Northern Life interviews Donna Craddock of ClickClickBang Photography, creator of the Warrior Project, a stunning series of shots featuring people with a physical or mental disability.
Over the past year, we’ve featured five inspiring individuals in the Warrior Project, all captured by Donna’s lens. In this final feature, we’ve decided to focus on the woman behind the camera and delve beyond the backdrop into what led Donna to create this amazing photo series.
“The Warrior Project came from my struggles with my mental and physical health,” Donna explains. The 44-year-old has been diagnosed with several conditions, including fibromyalgia, chronic migraines and ADHD.
For years, Donna had been putting the pain in her joints down to fibromyalgia, but, last summer, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissues. This diagnosis was a turning point, as many of her other conditions were intrinsically linked. It became a revelation, a validating affirmation that silenced the constant self-doubt that often accompanies chronic illness. “Being chronically sick, you’re always convincing yourself that you’re just lazy, that you just can’t be bothered and that you are faking it,” she says. With ADHD and anxiety both established as co-morbidities to Ehlers-Danlos, it allowed Donna to begin to understand her body and why she suffered from each condition. It was a validation she desperately needed as she battled through gruelling PIP (personal independence allowance) applications. “It was a horrible process, absolutely traumatising. It made you doubt the point in yourself. It’s awful having to lay out everything wrong with you.” Yet, with approval secured, she’s pacing herself, limiting shoots to one per week to ensure much-needed recovery and rest.
Donna’s resilience shines through in her health battles and overcoming life’s adversities, like a house fire that prompted her family to relocate from Trawden to Colne and back again over the course of 18 months. In her new home, she set up a studio, a sanctuary where she captures the essence of her subjects each Friday.
The Warrior Project is a reflection of Donna’s empathy and connection with her subjects. “I identify with each person I photograph in one way or another,” she says. Her experiences pave the way for authentic, deep conversations that help her understand her subjects, resulting in more relaxed and genuine portraits. “You end up getting drawn into these huge, deep conversations, but, at the same time, those conversations genuinely help me get better portraits because their guard’s down and they’re more relaxed.”
“I HAVE NO CREATIVE STREAK IN ME AS SUCH.”
Donna’s journey into photography began unexpectedly when her daughter was born in 2001. “I did music at college. I had never picked up a camera. I’ve never been artistic: I can’t draw, paint, or do anything like that. But something about photography really works for me,” Donna says. “It’s the fact that you can create a bit of art without being able to paint or draw because I can’t do anything like that at all. I have no real creative streak in me, as such. It’s the science more than anything else. I know how to create the light, I know how the camera settings work, it’s all very scientific.”
When she had her son seven years later, she decided to study photography at Blackburn University. Once graduated, she took up a role that had her attending hundreds of people’s big days as a wedding photographer. Although Donna loved capturing weddings, health concerns eventually led her to stop taking bookings. “It took a toll on my body, and no matter how I felt, I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel well’ – you’ve got to go! I’d have nightmares for weeks beforehand, worrying about my camera breaking halfway through the ceremony.”
So instead, six years ago, she shifted her focus to capturing the raw beauty of portraits. “It turned out that I actually loved portraits. I really love that connection with the person in front of me. There isn’t any Photoshop, there’s no camera trickery, it’s not been edited, that’s exactly how you look right now – that’s my favourite thing.” Her studio is not just a place for photographs; it’s a space where connections are formed, nerves are shed, and self-love is discovered.
Clients leave with a Polaroid, a tangible reminder of their moment in the spotlight. But for Donna, the journey doesn’t end there. The editing process and the reveal two weeks later are occasions filled with emotion. “It is just so amazing for my partner to see herself the way I see her,” clients often express. “I’m always so honoured to move people like that,” she explains, “because to me, taking the picture is not a big deal, but the emotions that come from it very much are.”
“I REALLY LOVE THAT CONNECTION WITH THE PERSON IN FRONT OF ME.”
For Donna, the impact goes beyond making someone look good. Many of her clients have never been photographed professionally, and for older people, their portrait is a lasting legacy. “Older ladies often come to me and say, ‘If I die, there’s no photos of me.’ It’s very empowering to capture them, both for them and for me. All I want to do is make people feel good, powerful and confident.”
As Donna continued with her Warrior Project, she decided to do a series of self-portraits to talk about her own struggles with mental health and bulimia.
“I have always hated being in front of the camera,” Donna explains. “I decided to do a self-portrait project for 2022 to develop self-love and acceptance around my body, especially now that I am in my mid-40s, after a lifetime of eating disorders and hating my body. And, surprisingly, it worked! Despite being a photographer for many years, I never truly understood how much portraits can affect your self-confidence and how you view your body.
Portraits are so important, especially for those of us with physical or mental health difficulties, to show you that you are more than your labels or your conditions. I have a newfound love for my portrait work. I’m okay with being overweight now (I’m disabled and neurodivergent; I think my fondness for food is the least of my concerns!), and I’m more than okay with ageing. I can’t wait to be in my 60s, still taking amazing selfies and shouting my new catchphrase from the rooftops – ‘If I can do this for me, I can definitely do it for you!’”
Read the previous article on the Warrior Project here or search our website for “Warrior Project” to discover all the articles in the series.
To see more of Donna’s work or to book a portrait shoot for yourself, head to clickclickbang.co.uk
NorthernLife Jan/Feb 24