Meet Oliver Hellowell, a brilliant 22-year old UK-based nature photographer, who didn’t let the challenges of Down Syndrome get in the way of his dreams. Photographing wildlife since 11, Oliver is now famous around the globe, won awards, been on television, and has appeared on BBC UK with Tennessee photographer, Ken Jenkins, to discuss his latest book, Oliver’s Birds.
At three months old, Oliver had open heart surgery to repair three serious cardiac defects. Medics had feared he would not survive long enough to reach surgery. By the time he was three, predictions by speech and language therapists and physiotherapists had pronounced him severely delayed and affected by his Down Syndrome and additional diagnoses. It was believed he would never be able to produce speech which could be understood by an unfamiliar listener.
At the age of 11, he became fascinated by photography and with the patient mentoring and instruction provided by his stepfather, Oliver learned and was able to freely develop his own unique style and view of the world through his camera.
Here, you will find a range of astonishing images from Oliver Hellowell described in his own words, and a moving foreword written by his mother, Wendy O’Carroll, about how her son wouldn’t let the unique challenges stand in his way.
Farne Islands, Northumberland
For some reason this puffin reminds me of my cat – and I love my cat!
Great Grey Owl
I always wanted to see a great grey owl in Alaska, but I saw this one in Gloucestershire!
I am fascinated by the beautiful feather-like patterns in the water around the swan in this image.
Blackdown Hills, Somerset
I think he’s so beautiful; I like the head and the size of the bird and the amazing shiny colours. It’s a striking bird.
Cracking birds, wrens! I like wrens! I gave a print of this picture to my mate Iolo Williams because he likes wrens too.
For bird photography we use: a shed with holes cut out of the sides at seat height, two mobile ‘pop-up’ hides, and a reflection pool which we built. We use a variety of mossy logs and sticks as props on an old tripod for birds to land on, always placed near bird feeders.
Having a splash
Oliver’s mum writes:
How wonderful, that a young man, for whom communication brings with it quite specific
challenges, is able to use photography to interact with people all over our planet, thus showing
them his own unique view of wildlife and the natural world around him which he so loves.
Oliver Hellowell, born in July 1996, is a young man fast achieving his dream of being a
professional landscape and wildlife photographer. Nothing too unusual about that you might think, until you realise that Oliver happens to have Down Syndrome.
At three months old, he had open heart surgery to repair three serious cardiac defects, after which I discovered that medics had feared he would not survive long enough to reach surgery. By the time he was three years old, predictions by speech and language therapists and physiotherapists had pronounced him so severely delayed and affected by his Down Syndrome and additional diagnoses, that it was believed he would never be able to produce speech which could be understood by an unfamiliar listener.
It was also thought that his extremely poor muscle tone would leave him unable to manage much physical activity and that taking part in ‘sports’ would be beyond him. However, with his determined and optimistic mother, Wendy, always at his side and with encouragement from his elder sister, Anna, Oliver grew up enjoying skateboarding, football, basketball, snooker and golf
and became a happy, healthy and fit young man.
At the age of 11 he became fascinated by photography and with the patient mentoring and instruction provided by his stepfather, Mike, who came into Oliver’s life when he was nearly ten years old, Oliver learned and was able to freely develop his own unique style and view of the world through his camera.
His live interviews on both radio and television have put predictions to shame, and his appearances on the BBC’s The One Show brought him further into the public eye, raising positive awareness and encouraging so many other parents and families. With professionals having predicted a particularly unfortunate and bleak life for this young man, his family take particular delight in the fact that he has completely smashed all those predictions, and that photography has helped him to do that.
Wildlife has been a fascination for Oliver ever since he was a small child who has always loved the great outdoors. Birds are his particular favourite and he retains a quite fantastic bank of knowledge on the subject, being able to identify hundreds of species at a glance.
Oliver’s vision is slightly different to yours and mine in a way which is best described as his having significantly reduced contrast. The physical makeup of the eyes of people who have Down Syndrome is slightly irregular and causes their vision to appear almost as if they are looking through a fine mist or fog. This is no doubt one of the reasons why Oliver loves to boost the contrast of his pictures in Photoshop, encouraging the colours to leap out and have more clarity for him.
Oliver has an innate talent for framing and composition and certainly has his own style, frequently capturing ‘parts’ of the animal or bird he is focussing on rather than seeking to seize an image of the ‘whole’. He also enjoys adopting an unusual angle. He can find some situations and environments overwhelming and a camera allows him to filter out the rest and concentrate on just the piece he’s interested in. He constantly refers to the rear screen, checking after almost every click of the shutter, to see if he has caught exactly the image he intended.
At home in the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, where he lives with his family, Oliver is fortunate enough to have a very large back garden area with a purpose-built hide as well as temporary mobile hides, which assist with the build up of his massive image collection of native birdlife.
Being a booklover, he owns more than 300 books, with around 40 of those being bird books.
On Facebook Oliver has a following of over 65,000 fans, drawn from across the globe, while his website receives orders every week from literally all over the world. He enjoys a full, interesting and busy life; he has a loving family, and makes friends wherever he goes.
In 2015 Oliver appeared on the BBC’s The One Show for the first time and won the National Diversity Award in the category of National Role Model for Disability.
In 2017 Tennessee Tourism commissioned Oliver to capture the Smoky Mountains National Park in his own inimitable style. They cleverly thought to introduce him to Ken Jenkins, a professional photographer and gallery owner, who had lived and grown up in the Smoky Mountains.
Oliver and Ken bonded instantly and talking about their mutual passion – birds. By the end of the couple of days they spent together, the two had forged a deep and abiding friendship which
continues to span the ocean between them, the pair having already met up and enjoyed a joint exhibition in London Heathrow’s T5 Gallery.
Love this nature photographer’s inspiring story? Get his book here.