My portraits of transgender soldiers were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery

On the first day of the year, 2023, twenty countries allowed transgender military personnel to serve openly. In 2014, the British Army granted transgender people permission to serve openly in its military forces.

Award-winning photographer Rory Lewis, who has previously captured celebrities, and members of the Royal family, exhibited unseen images of famous faces, and photographed military personnel, has been working on a project featuring transgender soldiers, capturing those who serve with pride.

• Check out the best camera for portraits

One of the most striking portraits is that of Warrant Officer Class 2 Deborah Penny, who served 30 years in the British Army’s Royal Logistic Corps as a Bomb disposal expert and made Army history as the first transgender Soldier to serve on the front line. Her portrait has been acquired by The National Portrait Gallery in London, UK.

“The British Army is a wonderfully diverse organisation and I’m pleased that my portrait has helped to recognise a true British Army Hero," Rory says. "Deborah will take her rightful place in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.”

We've reached out to Rory to find out more about this project, including how they were captured and what he plans to do with the final collection.

Rory Lewis Soldiery project

WO2 Penny Royal Logistic Corps (Image credit: Rory Lewis)
Rory Lewis headshot
Rory Lewis

Rory Lewis is an acclaimed portrait photographer who has worked with a wide range of subjects, from members of the Royal Family to army generals to famous actors such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. Lewis is still inspired by art rather than photography, dramatically depicting his subjects in the style of Caravaggio. Rory believes the key to good portraiture is being bold and taking risks with your subjects, pushing them to release emotion.

How did this project come about?

The opportunity came during a larger project entitled Soldiery, from 2016-22, collaborating closely with the Army in a busy schedule of hundreds of military portrait sittings. The British Army is a diverse and proud organisation with a cherished heritage. ‘Soldiery’, has been a project focusing on historically documenting the modern British Army in a contemporary reflection of historical portraiture of days gone by. 

After meeting service personnel who are part of the LGBT community, I was keen to highlight the story of Transgender Soldiers. Only since 2014 have they been able to serve openly in the British Army.

“Just by looking into the eyes of the men and women you can see those soldiers who have just passed out looking fresh-faced and ready for action, and then look at those who have been veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with more experienced and vivid emotions.” This is Army life through the lens. Each portrait depicts a different story.

I was delighted to capture the series, especially WO2 Deborah Penny, who was the first Transgender British Soldier to serve on the front line. Her portrait was acquired by The National Portrait Gallery and won the Portrait of Britain Prize.

The full Soldiery project including Transgender Personal is on display at the National Army Museum in London as part of the Museums collection.

Rory Lewis Soldiery project

Sgt Lonergan Adjutant General's Corps (Image credit: Rory Lewis)

How did you direct your subjects?

Directing soldiers isn’t very hard, as they are used to orders, and capturing each in a plain way, with an off-camera gaze, offered a deep thoughtful portrait. 

What camera kit did you use?

  • Hasselblad X1D II 50C + Hasselblad XCD 90mm f/3.2 Lens
  • Profoto D10 X Duo Kit
  • Profoto Translucent Umbrella S
  • Profoto OCF Octa Softbox
  • Manfrotto Black/Grey Collapsible Backdrop

Rory Lewis Soldiery project

Sgt Ivor Perkins Royal Logistic Corps (Image credit: Rory Lewis)

Where do you see the images being used in the future? Will there be an exhibition?

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Lauren Scott
Managing Editor

Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 

An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine

In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.