Mental Health and Photography

Mental Health and Photography. 

The first week in October is Mental Health Awareness week. My social media has been invaded with philosophical quotes on top of softly focused sunset images. It’s hope, to draws attention to what seems to be a mental health epidemic. As a photography tutor, I see first hand the huge increase of students struggling from a variety of disorders from agoraphobia to anorexia. I also see a huge number of learners confused about the changing sensations they feel. Some of which are normal teenage emotional states. Nerves are confused with anxiety or unhappiness with depression. Resulting in the trivialization of an illness that can be debilitation. The boundaries are at times, like the sunset photograph, blurred. 

Expression of emotions using photography is common practice. This may be why so many young people who struggle with this are drawn to the arts. Taking ownership of your shit and expressing it through the creative process can be empowering. We all know the familiar tales of a tortured artist; Van Gogh’s self-harming to Tracey Emin’s depression bed. Mental health issues truly do contribute greatly to the Tate Moderns impressive art collection. When it comes to photography, nothing encapsulates mental illness more than a Francesca Woodman image. The use of slow shutter speed in an empty and bare room really does allow the viewer a glimpse into the mind of someone battling depression. Isolating, confusing and lonely. But it is in the work of Dina Goldstein that we may find the biggest contributing factor to contemporary mental health illnesses. Expectation versus reality. 

I have, in the past, suffered from anxiety. The first time it happened (shortly after my fathers’ death) was a totally confusing experience. I did not understand what was happening to me. To quote Shirley Valentine, I thought I was “loop the fucking loop”, batshit crazy, sectioning imminent! If I, like Woodman, were to have produced a series of self-portraits during this time, they would have shown me laid on the couch, shrouded in my Primark duvet, watching the deplorable Jeremy Kyle berating gambling addicts for blowing theirs benefits on online poker. The Jeremy Kyle Show brought to you by Foxy Bingo.com. Words fail me. 

I got through that chapter the way I get through all the challenging times in my life, with the support of my husband. He did not understand what was happening to me but he did encourage me to seek help. After several NHS counseling sessions, I was able to use cognitive behavior therapy and a determined (some may say stubborn) attitude to overcome the battle of “normal brain” versus “fucking mental brain”. I chose not to take the blue pill, but work things out myself without any chemical influence. I have always found the tough love approach to my mental health works best. Slapping me across the face and saying “get your shit together” has far more of an impact than the “how does that make you feel?” approach. I am not a fan of the Freudian method that so many therapist use. I can say with 100% confidence that nothing happened to me as a child that has any bearing on my mental state today. And trust me, I have dug up every crevice of my childhood with a trained professional and the conclusion……I was blessed! I fully accept that this may work for some but not for me. For me, It is just life! Sometimes it gets hard and I, like most, get overwhelmed. I’d just burnt out. 

Mental illness has not only affected me but I continually witness it affecting my students. They live in such a different world than the one I grew up in. Unremitting pressures are placed on their shoulders from all angles. Television exists as a hybrid of cooking shows and reality TV. Reality being the ironic adjective. Eerily, social media closely resembles the world of the 1950’s Madmen. A period in history whitewashed by male ad executives presenting their idea of the perfect female. Image manipulation was used even then to present the ideal women. Below, is an image of Marilyn Munroe that contains a list of instructions, written by men, to “enhance” her beauty. Like she needed it! A post-war example of today’s image editing software such as Snapchat or Instagram. Airbrushing the imperfection to create an altered version of ones’ self. It is these pressure from social media and the obsession for perfection that affect many of us today. Although there is one obvious cultural shift from the 1950’s to now. Nowadays, It is women who are predominately driving this. 

Martin Parr’s private collect; Marilyn Munroe with glasses

I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to reality TV. There is something very alluring in escaping the norms of modern day life by being transported to Beverly Hills and watching housewives bleach their anuses and injecting pig collagen into their face. However, a recent show aired on Channel 4 changed my perception. The Circle is a game show based on social media, with the concept that “anyone can be anyone in The Circle”. Contestants can not see each other, they only interact through chat windows and profile pictures. Friendships are formed and opinions are based solely through a screen. It really was 1984 meets Black Mirror. I loved every second of it. The two players who stood out as contenders to win the £50,000 prize money were Dan and Kate. Dan was a 28-year-old man from London. He took care of himself physically, proved himself to be a good confidant and even challenged another player when their views on immigration were somewhat draconian. He was not rich or born into wealth but, for want of a better word, normal. An average young man with good morals. I liked him. To me, Dan was the winner. As a mother, I looked at him through my “I’d be proud of you if you were my son” eyes. He even had the words integrity and loyalty tattooed on him. I was convinced that such a well-rounded character would take it home! On the other hand, we had Kate, who was actually Alex. A 26-year-old YouTube comedian (whatever the fuck that is) who created the ultimate perfect persona in Kate. He faked his gender, profile images, fabricated a full backstory and maintained a completely unrealistic façade for the duration of the show. He was a full-blown Katefish and we (the viewers) were the only ones in on the joke. When the final came and the most popular player was crowned, it was Alex/kate who won. Ironically, with the support from his/her closest friend Dan. The audience knew that this person was completely false yet they chose the idea of perfection over honestly and vulnerability. It seems that 56 years after Marilyn Monroe took her own life after battling with mental illness, we really do still prefer the Marilyn on the left to the one on the right.

The photographic industry has undoubtedly contributed to the low self-esteem felt by many today. According to Pantic (2014) anxiety, depression, psychotic disorders, and low self-esteem are all the likely results of social networking sites. But the reality is social media is not going anywhere. We are all guilty of being addicted. I check Instagram more than I check in with my children because they are off somewhere watching YouTube! We can not realistically expect people to ditch their iPhones’ and revert back to the Nokia 3310 regardless of how good Snake is. That’s why this 1 week out of 52 is vital. We need these discussions to continue. We need the dose of reality to cut through all the bullshit. During my MA in Photography, I explored socially mobility. This was a personal project for me as I felt unhappy being labeled Middle-Class but could no longer identify with the struggles of being Working-Class. I was lost in the “Class System” I didn’t know who I was. Thanks to an excellent tutor and the writings of Owen Jones, I was able to gain a perspective that enabled me to embrace both who I was and respect where I had come from. To own my shit! The impact this had on my photography changed the trajectory of my life. Books such as Power Without Responsibility and The establishment and how they get away with it made me identify the cause of my anxieties. I had been hoodwinked by the media to resent the community I had come from. I was programmed to “better” myself and become liberated from the Working-Class shackles that held me down. To acknowledge material abundance is the path to eternal happiness. It was a joke. Understanding the manipulative propaganda employed by the state and the media liberated me to feel content with who I was. I have no anxieties about who I am anymore. I am a Working-Class photographer who was lucky enough to receive an excellent education and now resides in Lincolnshire. I have used my photographic practice to liberate myself and others from the idea that average is the worst thing you can be. There is nothing wrong with average. I am average and the chances are unless you are Toni Morrison or Stephen Hawkins, you are too. What is more important is that we need average. I am fully aware that when it comes to photography my ambition far out ways my talent. But that does not stop me. I understand the importance of empowering average and shifting, unapologetically, the stereotypes placed on society for being anything other than a Kardashian. 

Two years ago this week, I could no longer force myself to be OK. I decided to take the blue pill and chemically adjust my matrix. I don’t regret doing this and I understand for others it is the right thing to do but for me, I don’t believe I have a chemical imbalance. I think it is just life. Sometimes it overwhelms you and sometimes not. And so I find myself in mental health purgatory. Too scared to stop taking my medication whilst being convinced that it does not work. A good friend of mine, who is a mental health specialist, once told me that the only emotion more powerful than fear is anger. It is this anger that fuels my need to document society and hold up the banner to others saying “We are all fucked, it’s ok”. Hence the blog. I wanted to use this entry to hold a “Black Mirror” up to the photographic industry and ask important questions about integrity and false realities.
To sign off this entry I would like to make my own contribution to both the photographic world and anybody struggling with mental illness. I hope you enjoy it……….   


Me, Yesterday