Billingham was born in Birmingham and initially studied as a painter at Bournville College of Art and the University of Sunderland.
His most celebrated body of work, with which he established his reputation, depicted his family and was published as Ray's A Laugh (1996). Ray's a Laugh is a portrayal of the poverty and deprivation in which Billingham grew up. The focus of the series is Ray, his father, and Liz, his mother.
In 1997, Billingham was included in the exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Art which showcased the art collection of Charles Saatchi and included many of the young British artists (yBas). Also in 1997, Billingham won the Citigroup Photography Prize. He was shortlisted for the 2001 Turner Prize, for his solo show at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.