Finding inner peace: photographing the unseen side of Cystic Fibrosis

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All images from Breathing Space © Cíara Hillyer.

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

Cíara Hillyer has spent her life in and out of hospitals. For her, they are a space of comfort and peace, where she can be vulnerable – feelings she captures in her delicate project, Breathing Space.

“When I go to the hospital, the camera comes with me,” says Cíara Hillyer, a soon-to-be graduate of the MA photography course at The University of the West of England. Born in 1992, the artist lives with Cystic Fibrosis, a chronic illness that requires regular hospital visits.

Hillyer applied for the MA with a documentary project recording these medical journeys, a body of work a decade in the making. Yet, over the last 18 months, her practice has turned inwards, shifting into a more reflective, speculative position. “I’ve read and learnt more about photography than ever before,” she says of her time in Bristol.

Her project Breathing Space grew from her original documentary plans, but it was the Covid-19 which profoundly altered her understanding of the project. As the news cycle and visual culture became awash with hospital images, Hillyer decided to move away from literal depiction and began experimenting instead with “photographing from feeling.” Influenced by photographers such as Rinko Kawauchi, Hillyer delved as deep as she could into “the feeling of the moment, not its look.” The resulting project is more a record of the artist’s state within the space than the space itself. Compared with classic documentary work – rife with notions of distance, truth, and impartiality – Breathing Space is wholly and undeniably her experience.


“I made this project about my health, but it’s not clinical, or scary,” Hillyer explains. Many images of hospitals carry feelings of unease, yet for those living with a chronic illness, familiar with both the facility and staff, the hospital can become a space of comfort. “It’s a place where I don’t need to put up shields and boundaries or a brave face,” Hillyer says. “I can be completely vulnerable. As scary as it can be, there are little pockets of beauty.” Hillyer knew that Breathing Space needed to reflect her experience as a long-term patient, to “find the peace” in depiction. Floral motifs trickle in, a reminder to breathe, and allow oneself to pause within the moment.

“After completing Breathing Space, I realised how much I owe to my illness. As heartbreaking, dictating, and as frustrating as it can be, there’s also some type of peace.”

Hillyer intends to continue Breathing Space, developing her studies at PhD level, taking a deeper look into disability, chronic illness, art, and therapy. Simply put, as healthcare improves, more people will have the tools they need to become artists. It was due to developments in Cystic Fibrosis healthcare that Hillyer’s studies became possible. “I never in a million years thought that I would complete the Masters and also go on to apply for a PhD,” she concedes. “This is just the beginning; there is still so much to tap into.”

Breathing Space began as therapy, and has since helped Hillyer align her chronic illness with her creative identity. “Six years ago I really resented Cystic Fibrosis,” she explains. “After completing Breathing Space, I realised how much I owe to my illness. As heartbreaking, dictating, and as frustrating as it can be, there’s also some type of peace. I still get down days, but I wouldn’t be the creative practitioner I am if not for it. Moving forward, I’m now in a position where we go hand in hand. We help each other.”

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable is a freelance writer, as well as a curator at the arts consultancy Artiq. Prior to this, He studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute, followed by roles at British Journal of Photography and The Photographers' Gallery. His words have featured in British Journal of Photography, Elephant Magazine, Galerie Peter Sellim, The Photographers' Gallery, and The South London Gallery. He is particularly interested in documentary ethics, race, gender, class, and the body.