Julian Johnson

Julian Johnson

Julian Johnson is currently an undergraduate Studio Art major at Wesleyan University, based in Austin, Texas (US). His practice involves photography, music, and creative writing. In this interview Julian shares his work Hi, How Are You? and discusses how photography relates to his experience of anxiety and depression.

What is your background — how did you get started and what attracted you to photography as a medium?

I’m born and raised in a Catholic family in Austin, TX. I’ve played the drums since I was kid, so I guess art has been a part of my life since I was little, but I didn’t get into photography till college. I was back home over winter break working as a food delivery driver, depressed as hell. I would spend my time roaming around my hometown taking pictures on Snapchat, and it was pretty soothing. I had a lung cancer scare round that time – it ended up just being built up scar tissue from when I had bronchitis a couple of times that year. So when the test came back negative, I blew my money on a used camera and just kind of ran with it ever since. I had a lot of social anxiety at school, but I took my camera out with me as a social crutch, shooting at parties and concerts. I was thinking about dropping out of school for a while because I felt like I was too depressed to keep up, but I got into an intro photography class for the next semester, and decided to stick around. And now I’m an art major at Wesleyan. It’s been a medium that has kept me going, and it’s functioned as a diary to some degree, capturing the feelings I can’t really put to words.

You grew up with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. How did this affect you growing up and what impact has that had on your mental health?

I was diagnosed when I was five. I wore a back brace for ten years to help with scoliosis, had a spinal fusion when I was fifteen, and had jaw surgery when I was eighteen. I’ve had a few hernias and a ruptured appendix, and I deal with chronic pain on a daily basis. But I essentially grew up not feeling comfortable in my own skin, and recoveries from surgeries made me feel really isolated. It has no cure, and most of the time I’m fairly chipper, but it tends to eat at me existentially. I broke off from the church at sixteen, and that’s really when my mental health got bad. I developed some self-medicating tendencies to deal with it, occasionally leading to self-harm. I guess it’s just an ongoing mind-body connection, dealing with pain that won’t really go away.

Your project Hi, How Are You? is shot in China, a place you cite as having a huge impact on your mental health. What was it about your first trip in 2017 that played a positive role in your mental health and what role did photography play in that?

I got a grant from my school last summer to go to China to work on a project called I Country, I Uncountry with a butoh-esque dancer named Monica Sun. She writes, “From birth, the child of the immigrant suffers from a sort of sea-sickness. Oscillating precariously between her native country and her adopted country, her center is in chronic flux.” I photographed her performing around eastern China, navigating this liminal space and dealing with “a deep sense of confusion and pervasive longing.” She was a huge support system for me because she noticed I was struggling a lot with mental health, though I myself was in denial about feeling depressed and suicidal. I felt very isolated because I didn’t speak the language and knew few people in Shanghai. It was also my first time being relatively sober in a while, but it was really that summer that I started working on myself. I’ve started therapy and got on medication since.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2017, I got my first tattoo on the forearm where I used to burn myself – it reads, “Hi, how are you?” It’s a reference to some graffiti art in my hometown, a way of checking in with myself, and a translation of the only Mandarin I knew when I arrived to Shanghai. As time goes on, it also symbolizes the amount I debt I owe to this country for my progress in my mental health.

Can you say a bit more about how the series came about and your involvement in Lifeline Shanghai?

I was in Shanghai again this summer staying with Monica and her family, and I reached out to a few non-profits to see if I could volunteer and take photos for them. Lifeline is the only English speaking hotline in China (though they speak many languages), and it’s a huge resource for both locals and expats. The director, Coreene Horenko, was super welcoming to me, and since I wasn’t in Shanghai long enough to qualify to volunteer on the hotline, she gave me an assignment to shoot abstract photographs that they can use for social media and to sell at a community event in the fall for World Suicide Prevention Day, trying to raise money for their organization and to keep their important work going.

The images feature a real graphical quality with layers and lines — what were you looking for when making the work? Have you got a favourite image and why?

I usually have a hard time making photos without people in them because I feel like I need a protagonist for it to be a good shot. I was really looking for visual motifs that kept popping up around Shanghai, things that referenced place and loneliness at the same time. Advertising language kept popping up for me too, and I’d come up with little tag lines like, “Hanging in there?” and “Need some support?” But I think the graphical quality comes from my instinctual composition for the assignment – I felt like each picture should work as a piece of art and an ad in the subway. 

In regards to a favorite image, I guess it’s the watermelon peels. I kept seeing peels around the city, so I bought a watermelon at a store a few blocks from my apartment. I ended up throwing out my back in the process. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do the basic things anymore without hurting myself, like carrying groceries or bending over to wash the dishes, even though I’m 21. But we ate it with my neighbors, and I scattered them out the next day as a little memorial for my body. I also just like how the big peel in the middle looks like a smile – a little dose of sweetness.

Is this the first time you’ve explored mental health in your practice — do you think you’ll continue?

This is the first time I’ve consciously explored mental health. Looking back at the pictures I’ve taken the past couple of years, a lot of them reference mental health to some degree, but it was subconscious. And I’m definitely going to continue. My professor at school, Sasha Rudensky, tends to say that we all pretty much just have one story to tell as artists, and I think mental health is a part of my story, and will be for the rest of my life.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my senior thesis, Chronic, which is about living with a chronic condition, either physical or mental. It incorporates still lives like these, but also interviews/portraits of patients, western doctors, alternative medicine doctors, healers, exercise classes, and other systems of support. There isn’t an easy answer or solution for a lot of people, and it tends to be an invisible struggle. But it’s proven to be very cathartic so far. For most of my life, I’ve felt alone dealing with my pain, but there are a lot of people out there, and that sense of community definitely helps in the healing process. 


Taken from

Aaron Tennant

Aaron Tennant is a British photographer currently based in Lisbon, Portugal. A recent graduate from Middlesex University, Aaron shares his work Bacon from Cows, a project highlighting his mother's mental health difficulties and the impact on his family.

The title of this work originates from an event that took place at a happier time in my life when I was younger. My family was still together, and we were driving back home from Wales when I asked my dad what would happen if a cow fell off the hill and was hit by our car. My mother instantly responded that we would have a lot of bacon. My dad, my brother and I immediately laughed. My mother was confused, and didn’t understand why we were laughing until one of us informed her that bacon doesn’t come from cows. This moment is a memory I keep from a certain time when everything was happier. Everyone felt safe and loved because we had each other.

My mother is a figure in my life that I am both scared of, and love. Her life is submerged in depression and suicidal tendencies. This project explores the growing isolation my mother experiences due to her past.

You’ve just graduated from Middlesex University. How did you get into photography?

I've always loved getting a disposable camera when I went away on trips and at family events I would borrow my grandad's camera and take portraits to document the night. Since then I just fell in love with capturing the moment and the story you can tell and how you can use photography in so many different ways and forms to explain what it is that your work is looking into. I feel that this openness to the possibility of freedom allows people to express themselves.

Your project Bacon from Cows is a study of your family, primarily your mother’s difficulties due to her “depression and suicidal tendencies.” How did the project come about and has it always been natural for you to photograph your family?

This project is something that I’ve thought about for a long time as it's always something that I’ve wanted to learn more about from my mother, but never had the courage to ask my mum about this part of her life.

My mum doesn’t like being in front of the camera and she never has, so getting her to be involved with this work was a little hard to begin with. At first she said that she didn’t want me to do this project. I showed her the work that I had done perviously and told her that this work isn’t for myself, it's to open the door for more conversations about mental health. It took me several weeks of me shooting her environment and slowly adding her into the image before she felt comfortable to have her portraits taken.

Taken from "Bacon From Cows"

If possible, can you say a little bit about your mother’s difficulties and how that has impacted the family?

My mother suffers from clinical depression and suicidal tendencies and has done for as long as I can remember. My mum has been on antidepressants since I was growing up and my mum had several [suicide] attempts. I can’t remember all of them but I remember the time I spent at my grandparents' while she was in hospital. When my dad left my mum 6 years ago it was possibly the worst attempt, as me and my brother Elliot had never seen my mum try it [suicide], but Elliot found my mum when she overdosed when he was 14. My mum doesn’t have much family left but her friendship group is also small and they talk perhaps once every 2 months so the people around her seem to try to get her doing the best they can but it hardly works.

What difficulties have you faced (if any) in making the work? What positives have come from the project?

The biggest difficulty of this project was the emotional toll.  I didn’t think about my mother's attempts as much as I do now. This project caught me at my downs and amplified them, creating something that I found hard not to think about — anything else but what my mother was going through and what lead her to this.

The positives is that I get to see more into my mum's life as this is something that I have known about but not had a reason to start a conversation with her about what she has done in the past. Me and my mum are close as we have chats about things that she feels she can’t talk to anyone else about and it's nice to be able to do this with her as it allows her to get some of her concerns of her chest at the time.

Has your mother seen the work? How did she react?

Yes, my mum has seen the work. She is an important part in the conveying the truth and what it's like. I show her everything I shoot and everything I do with the work. Her reaction differs from what I’ve shown her most of the time she’s says that her place looks a mess and has a little chuckle or gasp. But I feel that she feels the same way about this project as I do. People need to know so they can understand better...

What are you working on now/next?

For me Bacon from Cows isn’t finished so I will be continuing this body of work, as there is a lot of this project I am yet to explore and expand upon. But while in Lisbon I am going to continue to document the everyday life of the people that live in Lisbon.


Jo Chukualim

Jo Chukualim is a photographer currently based in Cambridge, UK. Jo shares her personal project Growing Pains, a form of visual diary helping her to come to terms with different moments from the past.

You’ve just graduated from Middlesex University. What first attracted you to photography and how would you define your work?
I always say that my interest in photography came about quite randomly, in the sense of being interested in it as an art form and not just something you do to document a moment in your life. I had finished my GCSE exams and was trying to figure out what I wanted to study for my A-levels. I had always been interested in art and had a dream of going into fashion design but didn’t feel confident enough to pursue it. I then came across a short fashion photography short in London and quickly fell in love with directing models and photographing people in general. So, my work at the time was based mostly on fashion editorials and figuring out how I worked best, acquiring contacts in the industry and just gaining experience wherever I could.

My focus right now is mostly on creating strong narratives and I think my work is usually quite direct. It can sometimes be frustrating to look at art in a gallery, read the artist’s statement, and still not understand what’s going on. Even if people don’t connect with the work emotionally, my hope is that they’ll be able to understand what I’m saying or how I’m feeling.

Your project Growing Pains is a deeply personal work about some of the difficulties you’ve faced in your life. What led you to create such personal work and what has it been like to share those images?

Honestly, I never imagined myself doing something like this for a project. I was dealing with some personal battles at the time, which I kept very private but it was the only thing I could think about. Since I began my final major project, I decided to use the opportunity to look at my situation in a different way and offer myself some form of self-therapy. One of the things that has helped me over the years is being able to keep a journal, whether it’s in the form of a poem or just jotting down my thoughts. Growing Pains was simply another way to journal.

I tend to talk about things I’ve gone through in quite an objective way at times, with little to no emotion. It’s a way of distancing myself from those experiences as I try to make sense of them. I think this is also reflected in the way I chose to shoot for this project. The images are constructed and abstract with underlying emotion. It’s my photographic journal.

Do you have a favourite image from the series — can you walk us through what it represents and where the idea came from?

I’ve spent so long with this project but this image always gives me a rush of emotion from a hard couple of years. The model’s expression and her face being hidden in the darkness was a constant state for me - It felt like I was drowning in my own mind. I’ve learnt a lot from going through these experiences and I value my growth and my ability to move forward but this image takes me back so quickly to that scared vulnerable person before I get a chance to put up a wall to defend myself. That’s why I appreciate it. I want to move forward but I don’t want to ever forget what I went through.

Has making the work helped you to move on from any of these difficult experiences? Is there a therapeutic element to your work?

There’s definitely a therapeutic element to my work. I was in the thick of it and needed a way to make sense of what I was going through. I was able to grow from the experiences because it helped me start many conversations. But they weren’t just passing conversations, they were good, honest and open ones that allowed me to work through a lot of it.

What do you hope viewers take from the work?

I wanted my work to be as open as possible from the start but it won’t connect with everyone. I have a quiet and sometimes guarded personality so it has been hard for me, in the past, to be open with my emotions. So it’s a great feeling when people take a look at the images and are able to tell exactly how I was feeling when I created them. They have been very passionate about the way they responded to it and, as an artist, I really cannot ask for more.

What are you working on now/next?

Right now, I’m preparing for my graduation. I want to continue creating photographic projects that are meaningful to me and get back to working with more amazing artists. I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many inspiring people along the way and, for the first time in a while, I’m just excited for what the future will bring.

@j.chukphotography on Instagram
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James Schofield

James Schofield is a British photographer based in Manchester, England. James shares his work Against the Dark, his first book project. The work "explores and reconciles my own struggles with mental illness and the ever increasing notion of feeling disconnected" from the world.

What is your background in photography and how would you describe your practice?

My background in photography came about mostly through my school being an 'art college' so I was able to take it on as a subject at GCSE level when I was 14. I subsequently studied it at A Level and for my degree at Manchester School Of Art but for the majority of my time in the education system it never felt like I was doing the right thing, or, maybe I was of a different opinion to my tutors of what photography should be. There seems to be a notion that because photography is the closest medium to the human eye in appearance that it is therefore 'representative' but personally I saw it as a great way to showcase the 'perspective' of the artist.

How did the project Against the Dark come about? Where have your inspirations been drawn from?

The project itself was quite chaotic and was produced over a period of 3 years. During this time I graduated from a university course I was deeply unhappy with. I was (and to this day) struggling with and coming to accept my disposition towards anxiety and depression. I was also stuck in my hometown of Bury with no seeming potential future on the cards from which I could do something of meaning and contribute to society. Also my inability to hold down even basic retail and bar jobs was proving a problem which was in relation to my mental health issues. Ultimately, with the proverbial hurricane that was going on inside my own head Against The Dark was just a response to all that pain. When trying to figure out what was the best way to market the project I threw around all these ideas that it was this big extravaganza about existentialism but in all honesty it was all linked to the numbing pain and solitude that you can experience when your mental health has such an impact on your perspective. It can cause you to lose all faith in yourself and the reality that you know around you. Just total anomie.

Inspiration-wise I've always loved abstract art over photography easily. I was devastated in my art class at secondary school when I found I didn't have the capacity to visually represent what I wanted with a paintbrush or pencil. It was probably also to the detriment of my later tutors, employing photography as my creative outlet was liberating but I erred away from the framework we had at Manchester School For Art for example where documentary work like Martin Parr and Stephen Shore were the status quo. It wasn't for me. I love the artist Stanley Donwood. He's mostly known for his artwork for the British band Radiohead and his work led to me exploring more artists work like Jason Pollock or Franz Kline where I really felt I was seeing the complexity of the human mind laid bare for all to see. This multifaceted, complicated mess of ideas and feelings.

What is it about the black and white aesthetic that attracted you to working in this way?

I just can't help but feel that colour is dated and that no matter what happens, styles will change and the colour images produced now will be less relevant in the future. Black and white work however just feels very immediate, more stripped back and concise in its' own message. That and also that with a black and white image people can understand that what they're seeing isn't entirely representative which I feel is what happens with most modern cameras and colour photography.

You’ve produced Against the Dark as a book — what made you choose this format and did you learn anything in the process of making it?

I figured a book would be suitable for the project as I wanted it to be a genuine stream of consciousness that was being made real, the static noise/blips are there to outline the fragmented way of thinking you can go through when your mind is in conflict with itself with intrusive thoughts. In the end I think the book format for photography perhaps doesn't have the same issue of individual images having to be overly dramatic, everything can just be part of what's going on in this little world I've created for myself.

The images are broad in subject, from portraits to disorienting landscapes. The images seem to form part of a visual diary — how much planning goes into making each photograph and what you you looking for when you are making an image?

There was very minimal planning in all honesty. I'd think of a particular isolated place that had an aesthetic value to me, maybe it's the sea or a deserted forest or the chaos of the city with all its' activity and then I would hone in on a particular feeling which I would probably say was pain. I wasn't able to properly organise and manage myself during this time, even though the project is finished and there's a big component of documentary photography, towards the end of the project I became sick of wandering around looking for a possible good image. For further projects I want to create a dogma that will be more consistent and less erratic (which I should be able to do as my life is in much much better order than what it was 12 months ago).

Is there a therapeutic element to your photography?

There is a validation in making a photograph that shows what is going on with your own life and shows your viewpoint, even more so because people tend to accept ideas about more darker aspects of life more easily in art than in real life. It's all enveloped in an aesthetic that is appealing to the human eye but as much as these projects can be helpful to understanding your own condition, it's so so important to talk and open up to the people you trust about your struggles. There's no substitute to that.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently trying to find more opportunities to showcase Against The Dark at the moment. I'd love to put on a show in my home city of Manchester. I really want to get the project out as much as I can into the public if possible. I'd love to see more work on mental health, fragmentary was an absolute godsend in being able to see the work of other creatives that could perfectly outline the feeling of being afflicted with a particular condition.

For work in the future I'm currently listening to a lot of the Atoms For Peace Album AMOK at the moment. I want to photograph the end of the world in a way. It'll definitely be more abstract as I'm finding more and more abstract art that really excites me.


Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith is a photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I met Daniel at his graduate show at Free Range (London) and was instantly drawn in by the feelings of solitude in his work. I also saw that he was raising money CALM and we had a brief chat about his work. Daniel shares his work Fade Out, a personal project highlighting men's mental health.

What is your background in photography and how would you describe your work?

I have just graduated with a BA in Professional Photography so my photographic journey is really just starting. My personal work is a chance for me to visually explore themes and concepts that matter to me.

How did the concept for your project Fade Out come about?

The idea to create Fade Out came from my own personal experience with depression. I drew inspiration from music (Radiohead, Neil Young, Amber Run to name a few) as well as from TV (the colour palette for the series is influenced by True Detective). I like to fully immerse myself in any personal work that I produce and often draw inspiration from other forms of art.

Have you always used photography to explore mental health difficulties, or is this your first project in that field?

I have explored it twice previous to Fade Out but I feel as though this is the first time I’ve been successful with it.

I’m curious about the process of creating the images. Was each photograph carefully considered, or do you shoot the images in accordance to your mood?

I kept a research workbook where I compiled all sorts of inspiration (lyrics, paintings, photographs, poems, quotes from books, sketches). I spent a good 3 months almost completely dedicated to making the series. This meant I had a lot of time to plan and create the shots in my head before actually picking up my camera.

Do you shoot the images alone or with someone? What are you thinking about/feeling when making the work?

I shot most of these with another person. Either my girlfriend/assistant or my friend who is the subject in most of the images. Great question. I think I was able to detach myself from it when I was behind the camera. I actually felt more emotionally when I was editing them later on.

Has making the series impacted your experience with depression at all?

Greatly. By doing lots of research into depression and male suicide, I understood my own condition better. The final images also serve as a reminder that I’m not alone and that there is work to be done.

What has it been like sharing the images? What kind of response have they received?

It has been incredible. People have shared their own experiences with both depression and suicide with me. I believe something special happens when people who have or are struggling with depression open up to one another.

What do you hope others take away from Fade Out?

I hope it raises awareness about the scale and impact of male suicide. If the same amount of men died every year from another cause, we would be talking about it and try and find solutions so why not suicide?

@splitfocus on Instagram

Grace Jackson

Grace Jackson is a British photographer that makes the personal political. In her work One in Five Grace collaborates with those affected by rape, using her own experience as the catalyst for speaking up about the effects of sexual assault.

What is your background in photography and how would you describe your work?

I graduated from London College of Communication in 2015 and have a BA. I would definitely describe my work as fine art. I have always been interested in the process, in the handmade and in the tactile nature of work, and I guess that is why I shoot everything on film and print myself. I can be a bit of a control freak and like to be able to know that when I have created a piece of work it has been made by hands with no shortcuts. Further from this my work always centres around making the personal political. I've always been brought up that a problem shared is a problem halved and I think that is engrained in my bones, so making personal work has always been part of my nature. I also find it is a therapy. I'm not a massive talker when it comes to my feelings. I never seem to find the words that express what I am thinking or feeling, so getting to have my photography as a medium I can speak through really helps me.

How did your project One in Five come about?

It came about after I was raped in 2014. I didn't tell anyone. It was a massive secret that tormented me and in the end ruined a relationship and friendships because nobody could understand why I wasn't the same smiling girl I once was. However, although I didn't tell anyone I did start writing in a moleskin book, asking questions I would never get to the bottom to, or stating how my life my was changing and I couldn't control it. It was a bumpy road but it was the only thing that gave me a small piece of light in a very dark place.

It was when one of my closest friends told me her ex-boyfriend had raped her that I knew I had to do something. I saw the guilt she was made to feel, the way she felt her voice had no authority and I knew all of those feelings. I knew that the one thing that gave me some light she and others needed, not only for themselves, but also to talk about this issue that we have. This project was started just before the #MeToo and TIMESUP campaign, but in the media these are highlighting celebrities struggles, not your average person on the street and what happens in Hollywood and Parliament also happens on our streets. The funding is almost non-existent for rape victims and even if there is some, waiting lists are so long most people don't get the help they needed. So I'm not a therapist but I wanted to use my skill of photography to help and also raise conversation of the problem and hopefully educate.

Grace Jackson

How did you go about finding people willing to participate in the project?

Word of mouth, instagram and features help reach new people I wouldn't normally be able to reach. Since I have a small following this can be tricky but I guess getting people talking in the hope it reaches someone who may need it.

How did the idea of the text and images come together?

The texts come from a diary that anyone wanting to participate in the project gets. Once anyone gets in touch I send out a diary as soon as I can. They are free to doodle, draw or write anything they want. It is a tool that is to help them. Then I arrange a studio shoot where they are able to decide what they want to photograph, how they want to stand or sit. I then set up my large format camera to capture this and attach a long shutter release and they are free to take the image whenever they feel ready and comfortable. I then develop these and with their diary curate the images with the text that I think works. The photoshoot relies on funding and as I am self funding shoots these can take a while. I am trying to arrange a London shoot at the moment for people who have reached out around the London area but struggling to find a studio that will reply to booking a date, so I do have so much more work that could be produced but like most funding is an issue.

Grace Jackson

Grace Jackson

Grace Jackson

What has it been like collaborating with the participants in your project? How important is that?

It's amazing. It's amazing to open a conversation with a stranger about something so personal and have a connection and although it is tragic subject matter it feels cathartic to have someone know what it feels like, to know that you aren't alone but also to hear the way the project has helped them. The words people say when they've interacted with project or they've been a part of it makes me realise why I did all this. Even though it is self-funded it makes every penny worth it. I still find it hard to read peoples diaries when I start to curate the extracts together. I often am in floods of tears as I am doing it because it doesn't feel fair. It can be hard sometimes but I have to remind myself I am trying to create conversation and educate. I think its so important to have a connection, they are participating and sharing something they may have not shared with their family, so it is so important to grow a connection and make sure the participants feel safe and secure.

What do you hope viewers will take from the project?

Back in January when the project was super new I participated in Photo Scratch which gave me a chance to get anonymous feedback on the project, which was so positive. I knew that what I was doing was being seen and felt by others, as it can be hard to have that perspective when you are so involved. I guess what I want a viewer to feel is a sense of this isn't mainstream news and it isn't shouted about but it happens to so many and it can't just be ignored or silenced anymore. I want the viewers to question and have conversations about consent, sexual assault and rape; for people to feel safe, to have open dialogue. I guess a question I've always had and raised is why in schools do we teach about contraception but not consent? With questions like this being in a dialogue in a gallery, or a pub or watching the TV in the evening then we are starting to end the stigma of being made to be silent.

Grace Jackson

Grace Jackson

What are you working on now/next?

I am still working on One in Five and I don't know when it will be finished or done, or if it ever will. I am hoping that starting in September I can secure a studio for a weekend to get the participants that have been waiting for a shoot day to get them into a studio to work on their extracts. Other than One in Five, I am working on my series Calls by the Sea and Les Filles. I always try to have at least two series going alongside each other as then I can keep my head above water. I know it doesn't sound productive, and sometimes it's not, but it means that I keep my own mental stability, as my work is so personal and can be so raw I sometimes need work that is easy and care free with no structure. My happy place is by the sea or in my darkroom so I often spend long days at either to keep myself going. Other than this I have just learnt how to do wet plate collodion, so this summer I am really looking forward to practising the technique and creating more work.


Daniel Regan

The content from this post was originally formed from an interview by Ellyn Kail of Feature Shoot with Fragmentary Editor Daniel Regan. The original post can be found here.

“My background is in engineering and research. I quite enjoy, now, reflecting on how I became mad and that process of where the brain takes you. That I find fascinating. I think it’s quite difficult to become suicidal really. You need trigger points, some people need just need one, I needed quite a few. But once you’re there…

“The first time that I had heard the word Maytree I had been sectioned. I was in Chase Farm, Enfield, in the hospital unit. There were 4 people around the table chit chatting and 2 of those had both been guests at Maytree. It was 2005. It was coming up to the Christmas period and I didn’t think I’d get through it. One of the women said maybe you could go and stay at Maytree.

“Maytree was a wonderful safe place. I remember I was in a bad place. It really was quite bad. I couldn’t cook or do anything for myself. I used to love porridge. On the first morning Michael made me porridge and I thought… that little thing, making the porridge, was good.

“When I got better I thought maybe I should volunteer at Maytree. I think I have a sense of loyalty to Maytree. I find it therapeutic going there. It’s sometimes very challenging but I’ve never really thought it’s too overpowering, but when you walk through that door you never know…”

– Michael

Maytree is a house in Finsbury Park, London. It has four bedrooms, and its inhabitants change all the time. As a suicide respite center, it serves as a temporary home to people in crisis. Guests stay for four days and five nights only; during that time, they can speak openly with volunteers and peers. They can talk about anything and everything, or they can talk about nothing. There is no judgement, and the environment is decidedly non-clinical.

There are about 150 volunteers currently working at Maytree. The photographer Daniel Regan is one of them. His book and exhibition project I Want to Live tells the story of this unusual house and the people who walk through its doors.

Regan had his first encounter with Maytree in 2014, when he was going through a difficult time himself and reached out for support. He did not end up staying at Maytree as a guest, but the kindness he experienced over email remained with him. A year later, he contacted them again in hopes of becoming a volunteer. His situation is not unusual; many volunteers have had personal experiences with suicide and suicidal thoughts.

For more than fifteen years, Regan has used his camera to process his own journey with mental health. We’ve featured his work both here and here. In this case, he was a volunteer first and a photographer second; one year after he started at Maytree and two years after that initial email, he and Natalie Howarth, the director at Maytree, embarked on the project together.

A primary goal of both Maytree and the exhibition project is to eliminate the harmful taboo surrounding suicide. “I think it’s important for people to understand that there is a difference between having suicidal thoughts and the secondary stage of making a plan to kill yourself,” Regan explains. “We need to create safe and supportive spaces for people to talk about suicidal thoughts before they turn into action. It is so difficult to hear anyone talking about having suicidal thoughts, but by hearing them out and removing the stigma of it, we can begin to address the underlying issues that are causing the thoughts.”

I Want to Live includes photographs from the house itself as well as portraits and interviews with volunteers. “For confidentiality and ethical reasons, I never photographed in the house when there were guests, but after they had left,” the photographer tells me. As a volunteer, one of his duties is to clean the rooms and make them up for the next guest.

“It is such a deeply personal moment of transition to be parting with one person with the hopes that they’ll continue to live, as the next person comes in and the cycle repeats,” he says. “I always take pride in making the room as nice as possible because I want people to feel that it is their safe place during their stay.” While he did not photograph the individuals he’s met and who have left a permanent mark on him, he was able to tell their stories through their belongings and the items they’ve touched.

Without the photographs of the volunteers, the Maytree in the pages of Regan’s book would look like just another family home. In times of acute crisis, there’s poetry to be found in the mundane. The rituals of daily life become our anchors. I [Ellyn Kail] was hospitalized for OCD ten years ago; what I remember most is not any particular psychiatry session but the graham crackers and peanut butter I shared with my best friend over long chats each and every evening after the doctors had left. I Want to Live puts moments like that at the fore.

“Something that I’ll take from Maytree into the rest of my life is to never feel ashamed to talk about my difficulties,” Regan admits. “At Maytree we’re not there to fix someone; we’re there to allow people to speak openly about their crises. It can be uncomfortable, but we want people to live because they want to live, not because we want them to. I think the motivation for me is that it is such an incredible privilege to be able to help people in suicidal crisis, particularly because I have been there myself. ”

I Want to Live has just opened at the Free Space Project. The work will be on view through October 12th. Find the book here. I Want to Live was made possible with funding from the National Lottery in England.

"I was studying social work when I started volunteering at Maytree. I enjoyed my time there so I continued even after I’d finished my studies.

“There are so many people out there that try to commit suicide. I’m not trying to save them but I am trying to support them. I try to offer them different perspectives that help them recognise their difficulties. I do feel that I’m contributing in some way, even if it’s just helping them on to the path of recovery. The fact that people can make a phone call to Maytree is a sign of strength, to recognise where they are and what they need.

“I know family and friends that have been affected by depression so that’s impacted my decision to stay there. It’s very simple at Maytree, it’s just talking and allowing people to express their emotions, but it’s also very effective. Whenever I do a shift it always feels like the first week that I’ve been there because the situation is so fresh and different. We form really short but meaningful connections with guests. Because the connection is so temporary it’s easy to say how you feel with someone, which I think helps to get things out and be honest."

– Kwabena

"I was born in Birmingham. I was there until I was about 10 and then my family moved. Six months into us being there my Mum and younger siblings died. Our house exploded from a gas explosion. We hadn’t been there long. I stayed for a bit but then moved back to Birmingham and stayed with relatives. My whole life changed from one moment to the next. Death for me wasn’t scary. There was something really appealing about it. I really thought that if I was dead then I could be with my Mum and siblings again. I was never scared by the thoughts I started to have.

"I found out about Maytree at university. One of my friend’s sisters volunteered there and when she said suicide respite centre I remember thinking at some point I’m going to need that place. I remember thinking at the time I’ll either go there as a guest or volunteer one day. I never remember looking at the website or anything, I just kept it in the back of my mind.

"I feel like I’m suited to Maytree because I am comfortable hearing people’s dark stories. I feel like, for me, it’s rare that I get to have those kinds of conversations. They’re the ones that I find really stimulating. I don’t find it distressing being at Maytree — I find it really calming in a way. The house has been a consistent part of my life. I’ve been visiting there for ten years and there’s a real comfort in that. Even when you’re talking to someone that is distressed Maytree brings a calmness to it. It feels like the most human place that I know.

"What you offer as a volunteer is essentially available to anyone. You’re being a human being and listening. You don’t have to say the right thing or fix anything, be interesting or funny. You’re present and listening. It sounds so simple and yet people find it so hard. When you go into that house you are having a real human experience. That’s what I like about it. I really like listening to people’s stories. I really like going into the kitchen and meeting a guest and sometimes you don’t know who a guest or a volunteer is. I never go in with any intention of hearing anything in particular — you start where you start and the conversation goes where it goes. There’s a real honesty in that."

– Val

"I found out about Maytree after I came out of a few years of working with a clinical psychologist. I was on my own recovery journey at that point, coming out of several suicide crises. I’d gone through the mental health system most of my life. My psychologist was the only person, I have to say out of services, that had ever asked me about me. Going through mental health services there was always a different diagnosis or different medication, or sections. I was kind of in and out. I’d be OK for a spell and then relapse. It was a long journey. She was the first person that had really listened.

"I started off as a volunteer at the end of 2006. It was so different back then. It wasn’t as busy. I was going to Mind at the time and was doing a computer course as part of my recovery. I said I wanted to volunteer somewhere and they actually talked about Maytree. What I liked about Maytree was that it was face-to-face and it was longer term. The fact that Maytree is about listening is key to me. I bring that from my past.

"I never in a million years thought I’d end up working at Maytree after being a volunteer. I feel very privileged to be in my role. Sometimes I pinch myself. Especially when I was asked to do the BBC documentary, when I met Trevor McDonald or when I met Kate and William. I never introduce myself as the senior co-ordinator. I introduce myself as Angela, part of Maytree. It’s never been about hierarchy for me. It’s a team: the volunteers, staff, admin.

"I never ever dreamt that I’d live past 40. Never in a million years did I think this is where I’d be. I’m very proud."

– Angela

"When I stayed at Maytree in 2013 I used it as a holding place whilst I was waiting for my referral to a psychiatrist to come through. I think without Maytree and my stay at a psychiatric hospital combined, I wouldn’t be here. Work was one of the major factors leading up to this, alongside the breakup of a relationship, health reasons and some family members also being ill. I’d also started some therapy to address the suicide of my father and I just couldn’t do anything. It was paralysing.

"When I was a guest there were two of us in the house. We arrived on the same day and left on the same day. We were six months apart, age wise. We had completely different stories but the core of it was that we were pretty depressed. To a certain extent that was as good as anything with the volunteers. We played a lot of cards, we sat out in the garden because it was roasting hot. We could just be suicidal together but also talk about football and have a laugh about cards. It didn’t mean oh you’re better now. At Maytree it was OK to have a laugh still.

"I probably get as much from conversations with the volunteers as I do the guests. There’s a real sense of camaraderie with the volunteers. You can get to a level of conversation that’s free and honest really quickly, and also really supportive. That doesn’t really exist anywhere else."

– Ben

The content from this post was originally formed from an interview by Ellyn Kail of Feature Shoot with Fragmentary Editor Daniel Regan. The original post can be found here.

@danielreganphotography on Instagram

Doma Dovgialo

Dominika Dovgialo

Dominika Dovgialo is a Polish-Lithuanian photographer based in London. Her interest in mental health can be traced back to her school years where she took on a Peer Mentor role; someone who listens and tries to communicate to other students who are struggling. Dominika studied a Philosophy BA at King’s College London, developing her interest in identity, morality and the awareness of other minds.

What is your background in photography? How did you get started and how would you describe your practice?

Completing an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography drove me to try new things and approach topics in a more creative way. Can a photograph reveal what is going on in someone’s mind? My work about mental health aims to achieve this by inviting the subject to be a co-author of their portrait, allowing them to reveal what is going on inside. I found myself exploring all sorts of subjects, from Ibiza inspired dancers to nuns in a convent, always curious to find out about my subjects motivations. How do we end up where we are, and where would we have been otherwise? What’s behind people’s minds and choices, together with how society sometimes stigmatises certain behaviours, are the leitmotifs that drive my research.

What is it about mental health that interests you and how have you come to incorporate it into your work?

Around 450 million people currently suffer from neurological disorders, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. While physical health is both easily identifiable and spoken of, mental health still remains in the background like a mute elephant in the room. We are surrounded by faces that hide an aspect of themselves, just in case revealing their diagnosis might threaten everything they hold dear. The historical stigma attached to mental health makes it extremely hard for an individual to reach out for help or simply speak out about how they feel. Realising this, I wanted to take a different approach in raising awareness about mental health and what goes on in people’s mind’s. My project aims to create an open ‘conversation’ about first-hand experience of mental distress. Where words seem redundant, it’s time to move to more visual and intuitive forms of communication.

How did Behind the I - a portrait of the mind come about? What was the process for each image?

This project endeavours to understand people’s inner selves through art, and identify who they are and how they feel. It involved a collaborative set of workshops where participants engage in art therapy, learning basic photography and interviews or written words. I find photographing people helps me understand them - yet this approach only captures their outer reality. How could I ‘photograph’ the mind and create a portrait of what is going on inside, as well as outside, the heads of my subjects? The only way that seemed possible was to invite them to be both observer and creator of such a portrait.

I met most of the subjects in a mental health charity where each person participated in a 3-session workshop. This not only enabled the subjects to feel safe and more comfortable in their familiar setting, but also allowed us to spend more time together over the course of 2-3 weeks. My taking of their portrait created a canvas on which they could draw or write an expression of their inner selves. The final drawing process took around 1-2 hours, in a classroom with my presence.

The first session, however, involved a practise-attempt at drawing an ‘alternative self-portrait’, in the presence of an art therapist. This was led by Cate Smail of Art Therapy4All CIC. I thought it was important to initially have a professional who would know how to react in case someone needed help or guidance not only with the artistic process, but also with the potential emotional struggle.

The second session involved me teaching the participants basic photography composition and get them to practise their photography skills. I set them a homework to ‘document me’ – take pictures that say something about you, an important place to you, reveal how you feel through photography. I wanted them to get into the practise of thinking about who they are and how they could approach to represent themselves visually. Throughout the workshops I also surrounded them with many photos and visual cues from which they could be inspired for their final work. Jeffy’s drawing, for instance, was highly based on the work of Maurizio Anzeri. Most of the other drawings, however, did not bear much resemblance to works that the participants were introduced to.

The final session involved the drawing process on top of their portrait. There were no guidelines or rules on how they should approach this. An acetate sheet was placed on top of their portrait where they could draw. They were encouraged to bring any objects or pictures from home that they would like to stick onto their portrait. It was a chance for the subjects, or rather co-creators of these portraits, to take us beyond their physical impressions. Their art and direct engagement with their portraits might reveal more about their experience and bring us closer together. What do you see in their drawings of who they are? Do they take you behind their eyes? Perhaps we may never fully understand the journey through schizophrenia or depression, but we sure as hell can sit down and try.

What was the importance of working collaboratively with your sitters? What benefits do you see in participatory practice?

I often feel that a photograph, or particularly a portrait, is simply not enough. It seems like it’s only showing my point of view as a photographer and lacking a deeper communication from the sitter. I tried to address this feeling by finding a way to incorporate the persons own voice in their final representation, encourage them to take a chance and try to create a portrait of themselves in a new, creative, way. Participatory practise is a very useful and wonderful approach of trying to visualise what another person has been through, where the subject becomes the storyteller whilst you provide them the necessary tools to tell it. Not only does the overall combination (of words, drawing and photo) provide an insight into how each person sees themselves but the separate elements encapsulate the impossibility of 'seeing' or representing mental illness. The portraits are 'normal' people that we encounter everyday. It is only the addition of the words that tell us they are diagnosed as having mental health issues. The overlaid artwork then becomes not only how they have represented themselves but perhaps also how perception shifts to the seeing the 'other', or not ordinary, once their situation is known. In this way the work makes the viewer reflect not only on issues of representation and otherness but on the presence of all of us 'ordinary' individuals on the spectrum of mental health.

Did you face any barriers in working with others?

I felt like the final visual result of the project is out of my control, which was unusual to my practise but also the purpose of the project. As a photographer, I think concentrating on the aesthetic aspects of the final outcome is only natural, but it was a good challenge to get away from that and try to concentrate on the ‘meaning’ of the message which could only come from the sitters. I was really fulfilling to work with others, I felt incredibly grateful that people sacrificed their time to take part and shared their stories.

How much do you think that your own experiences with mental health inform the type of work that you make?

I think all of my projects stem from a deep exploration of who I am as a person, the questions that I find myself asking and a drive to use photography in order to get rid of my own prejudices. Mental health is a topic that is relevant to everybody, especially in today’s world where self-image seems to bear more importance than ever before. My own experience with mental health manifests itself through other close one’s experiencing it, which I think is the reason that drove me to do this project. I wanted to encourage people to speak about it and be more accepting of themselves going through mental distress; I wanted them to not see their own struggle as a weakness.

You have mentioned about your philosophy studies guiding you as an inspiration. Where else do you draw upon inspiration?

The idea to invite my subjects to become co-authors of their portrait in some part stemmed from a genre of ‘Outsider Art’, where someone who has no preconceived ideas in the creative fields per se is invited to produce something creative.

The portrait taking was inspired by Laura Pannack’s approach, where I tried to have intimate conversations throughout the shoot and get my subjects to think about topics that are important to them and relevant to this project. This resulted in more thought provoking photographs.

What do you hope viewers will take from this project?

I think stigma towards mental health exists because of a lack of knowledge. As one of the participants in the project mentioned, “If you don’t understand it, you fear it”. Someone purely speaking about an experience that they’ve had which is not neuro-typical might seem so different and far-fetched to someone who has never experienced it, might lead to false prejudices like perceiving people with mental health distress as violent, dangerous, unable to work, irresponsible… the list goes on. A study found that 47% of the general public would not want to work closely with someone who is depressed, and 30% would be unwilling to socialise with them – what people don’t realise is that they might already be socialising with people who are battling depression, what’s more, these might even be their close friends. Instead of firstly turning to words, I wanted the viewers to look at the subject’s drawings before their ‘diagnosis’ is revealed and try to figure out who they are as people. Mental health, or lack of it, is all around us and the ‘normality’ of these portraits should prove that. I hope the work can spark a curiosity in the viewer to gain more understanding about the sitters experiences, cause people to be more accepting and less judgemental towards someone who has gone through or is going through mental health distress.

What are you working on now/next?

I am currently working on a project about asexuality, aiming to shed light on asexual relationships but also explore a more general meaning of human desire and love.

@domaboma on Instagram

Rikard Österlund

Rikard Österlund is a Swedish photographer based in Rochester, Kent. Österlund moved to the UK in 2001 where he completed a BA (hons) in Editorial & Advertising Photography at Kent Institute of Art and Design. He also holds a PGCert in teaching creative arts.

The main focus of his work is on portraits and advertising for commercial clients, however in this interview Rikard shares his Kickstarter campaign for his book project Look I’m wearing all the colours, a project exploring the relationship with his wife Zara and the impact of her invisible chronic illnesses. You can back Rikard's campaign up until 1st June.

What is your background in photography? How did you get started and what kind of photographer would you describe yourself as?

I was a teenager when I start taking pictures of friends, bands, self-portraits. I remember skipping PE classes to spend time in the school darkroom, printing the images I’d made. In 1997 I saw an exhibition by Swedish photographer Anders Petersen and it left a lasting impression. My hometown Norrköping had a shop where you could by international magazines and I remember buying copies of Dazed & Confused and i-D magazine, getting inspired by the freedom their photographers seem to have. In Sweden most magazines seemed bland in comparison. I spent some time assisting photographers in Gothenburg but soon I decided to move to the UK to do my photography degree. In 2001 I moved to the UK to study Editorial & Advertising photography and those three years were an intense experience exploring a lot of different types of photography. My course work was entirely autobiographical, but on the side I made fashion images for other students. When I graduated I was offered a teaching job so I lectured part-time whilst building up my client list. I currently divide my time between commercial clients shooting portraits and lifestyle and my own personal projects.

How did you meet your now wife, Zara, and at what point did you become aware of her illnesses?

We had many shared friends but hadn’t actually met until I saw her modelling in a friends fashion show at the university where I worked. I was at the other end of the catwalk taking pictures. We met up soon after and it didn’t take long until we moved in together. I knew about Zara’s conditions from early on. Some of my friends had described them to me, but it was like Chinese whispers and no-one actually had any idea of what was going on.

Has it always been instinctual for you to photograph those around you, including relationships? How did Zara first feel about this?

Yes, I think so. But when I was younger it used to be more arranged - I would book a time to take some pictures - it has slowly become more intuitive and part of day to day life. I no longer feel obliged to use a certain camera, but am happy to photograph with whatever camera I have nearby. The shutter woke her up once when I photographed her sleeping, she looked really beautiful. Looking back at photographs is like a travelling back in time, not just to a specific event, but to a state of mind, an emotion.

How did the project Look I’m wearing all the colours come about?

I didn’t think about it as a project to start with at all. Me and Zara where talking one day and agreed that it would be good to document the flair ups. After that conversation I felt more able to bring the camera up to my eye on the hard days. That was the only conversation we had until a few years later when I felt it was time to compile some of the images. It was important for me to show everything, the great days and the hard. I wanted it to look like life and not a Instagram curated thing. So initially I chose images based on their individual strength rather than how they worked together. The first time I did an edit of what has become the book was at a Self Publish Be Happy workshop in early 2016. It was the first time I showed any of the images (20 of them) and it was a nurturing environment to work in. After that I continued working on it and showing people who didn’t know me and Zara to make sure the ebb and flow of the book translated. I am forever indebted to Swedish photographer Anna Clarén who has been a guiding light whilst working on the edit. It became evident that the core of the project is a love story.

What do you think you’ve learnt about invisible illnesses throughout your relationship?

The first thing is how common hidden, invisible conditions are and that despite this there is a stigma attached to them. It is believed that one third of the population live with a hidden condition. Travelling into London can be exhausting and we need to have regular rests. Asking for a seat on the Underground can be a challenge with a hidden condition, no sling or crutch to ‘evidence’ your condition.

I have also learnt how incredibly complex it can be to live with a hidden condition. A chronic pain can easily leave you feeling out of control of your own body and in turn cause isolation and depression. The response and reaction from people can aggravate and worsen your mental wellbeing. Since it is rarely spoken about it is easy to feel like you are the only person going through this.

How has photographing Zara — both the intimacies of the relationship, and the flair ups etc, impacted your understanding of living with illness, or your relationship (if at all)?

It has helped me a lot, when you are in the middle of a situation it is hard to see clearly. It is hard to understand the emotions and why something is happening. Looking back at the images afterward has allowed me to get more clarity and understand Zara's pain more than I would’ve been able to without the photographs. We have both been very open with each other from day one. Zara used to write very personal and exposing poetry and my personal projects left me quite vulnerable at times. So we never really questioned photographing the intimate moments, it just happened. Obviously you never have the intention of showing them to anyone else.

Why has it been important for you to produce a book of this project, and what advice can you offer to other photographs interested in making their first photobook?

I believe that art and storytelling can have a profound impact on our perspective. When I showed the book dummy in an exhibition last year people responded to the images and several people living with fibromyalgia said how much the book mirrored their life. I received a message yesterday from a lady telling me that it ‘really helped my daughters understanding of what I go though as I hide my pain, smile and try and carry on' You know when you hear a line in a song that explains how you’ve always felt about something but weren’t able to put into words?

I have always made little photobooks for myself and have done the design and print production for a few clients too, but this will be the first widely distributed book of my work. So I am familiar with the different stages of editing, design, paper choices etc. The most difficult thing is to understand is what your story is and then work out how the book can emphasise and carry that story. Oh, and read the colophon pages in your favourite books (to get the details about paper stock, the printer, publisher etc).

How does Zara feel about the project and book?

The first time she saw it was when I had printed the book dummy, so I was very nervous! She sat on the floor in my office and looked through it. It felt like hours passed. After a while she said that she thought it was beautiful and full of all her favourite things. "I think it is the most beautiful and romantic thing I have ever seen, full of hope and love because, despite all of the horrible things we have had to go through, we have always done it together."

What do you hope viewers take from the project?

I am hoping that they will connect to the story and that there will be some recognition. It is important for both of us to get the story out there, to let people know they are not alone. It would be great to create a crack in the stigma.

Where can people get a copy of the book?

People can make this book a reality by backing it on Kickstarter. If you go to the page there is a short film where you can see more images from the book (stay to the end of the video). A signed copy is £35 incl UK postage - until the 8am 1st June 2018.

@rikardolino on Instagram

Louis Quail

Louis Quail is a UK based documentary photographer. Louis has worked extensively for some of the UK's best known magazines and has been published and worked internationally over a period of many years. Louis increasingly devotes his time to personal, long-term projects. In this interview Louis shares his project Big Brother, an intimate photographic portrayal of his brother Justin’s struggle with schizophrenia. You can purchase a copy of the book, published by Dewi Lewis, on Louis' website.

What is your background in photography? How would you describe your career path and yourself as a photographer?

I was an editorial photographer for many years working for the Telegraph, Times, Marie Claire and so forth. Perhaps always a bit frustrated by the need to pay the bills I never really gave my self much room to explore work in any depth. This changed with my first big project desk job exploring globalisation through office life around the world. Big Brother is a continuation of a need to make projects with depth which are driven by an impulse to explore issues which I really care about and where there is the space to say something with originality.

Can you tell us how the project Big Brother came about and why you started to photograph Justin?

When I started this book it was shortly after mother died. Part of me would like to have photographed her, she also had schizophrenia, but I didn’t feel comfortable at that point in my career, I thought I might be exploiting my relationship on some level. When I started working on this book I was older and more confident in the idea that it is really important to give people like Justin a voice. I have come to believe worse than being intruded upon is to be ignored, Justin is at the bottom of the rung in society, this book gives him a voice.

At home in Mortlake, London.
Justin’s conditions means he is often feeling depressed. He oscillates between highs and lows; often the lows are attributed to high doses of drugs to control the behavior associated with the highs. Sometimes however he is just down or exhausted from lack of sleep. He hates taking the drugs complaining they create a “fog” that makes life like “wading through mud”.
Justin's level of organization and his ability to focus seems to have deteriorated as he gets older; keeping his room clean is a major challenge despite regular visits from cleaners.
Justin, photographed at his girlfriend's flat in East Sheen.
Justin’s continued visits to the now abandoned Mereway Day Centre are a testament to its hold on him. It was his go-to drop in centre for 23 years (and for our mother). Its closure around 2007 comes against a backdrop of government cuts within the mental health industry (including other favourites for Justin such as the Level Crossing and Centre 32 ) which if anything has been accelerating in recent years.

What pushed you to turn the project into a book?

The main reason to make this book is to challenge stigma, which is pervasive in our society in the UK and beyond. We expect stigma in mainstream society and nine out of ten people who suffer with mental illness says stigma makes their life worse. Simply not being treated decently, fairly or like an equal causes all sorts of negative outcomes for those who suffer from it. But perhaps more of a surprise is the way that stigma in some way is built in to the systems we use to manage our mentally ill. For example, risk assessments made by the mental health team by process are stigmatising, if we look for the worst case scenario from our mentally ill, we run the risk of demonising them.

This book challenges stigma by showing the life of an individual in all the light and shade; someone who suffers with their mental health but is not defined by it. We have moved mountains challenging stigma around physical disabilities, but mental health is still a remote area for many — misunderstood, ghettoised. We need the book to really get to grips with Justin’s life with real depth. We show some of Justin’s difficulties but also celebrate his success and contributions found in his relationship and his passions for art and bird watching. The message is mental health is part of us but it is not all of us.

How does Justin feel about the project? How on board is he with being photographed?

Justin’s thoughts on the project seem to change with his health and sense of well being. Sometimes he is excited to be part of it and supportive but at other times especially when he is down he lacks any sort of meaningful interest . One of the drivers for me is that I see there is an opportunity with this work to give Justin the chance to feel he is making an impact in the world, to give him a voice and to build self esteem. There have been many times when Justin has not been in the mood to be photographed and he has let me know this quite forcefully. However, he has never once asked me to to desist from making the book and over a period of years he has had the opportunity [to do that]. I think this stems from a deep human need to be seen.

At the same time this work is personal. There is no point making a body of work if its not going to be serious in intent and meaningful and to do that requires honesty and integrity. Part of this process I realised quite soon, involved me using Justin’s medical and police records so I could really get to grips with the parts of Justin’s life that could not be easily photographed. Although he understands this and accepts it (for him it is part of his daily life and does not concern him as it might others) and he understands why I am making this book, he is more apathetic about how it might change anything. In a way I’m fighting this apathy by encouraging Justin’s involvement. I am passionate about showing Justin’s life and fighting stigma. Deep down Justin trusts me and my instincts in the making of the book. With this trust comes a huge responsibility to make sure his has a positive experience.

The project is multi-layered using photographs of Justin, but also his art, medical and police records. How do you think this creates a wider and perhaps clearer picture of Justin’s story (and perhaps others experience of living with schizophrenia)?

Photography has limitations. Early on I knew I had to find other ways to tell Justin’s story. I can photograph Justin from the outside but the medical records allow me to get much closer to how he thinks. Written up medical and social service reports act like a series of interviews; revealing the nature of the illness and Justin’s inner thoughts. Equally, the police reports are working on a similar level. Witness statements from police officers detailing conversations made with Justin and his girlfriend Jackie are a brilliant aid to story telling the events during some of Justin’s most difficult moments.

What is surprising is how much of political planning at the top of society feeds down directly into Justin’s life: cuts to social care and police budgets and privatisation of housing care are all revealed in his interactions with the police and the associated records, so it’s important to have them. Most importantly though the police we see act like a third person in the relationship with his girlfriend (spoiler alert!). Their impulse is to separate them so the problems in their relationship go away. The question, will the relationship survive, this is something that drives the narrative.

Justin’s art and poetry in particular are hugely important, they give insight into his thoughts about his illness and the system that manages him. It’s been fantastic that I can use the book to give space to his compelling creative expression.

Justin's paintings often feature boats and very often birds. Mixed media on paper.
Painting inspired by the song ‘I am the God of Hell fire’ (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown).
A painting inspired by the the song I am the God of hell Fire, from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Self portrait.

How does it feel when you’re making these photographs? What do you think about and how does photography help you connect to the emotion of the moment?

Normally When I’m spending time with Justin I’m fire fighting a problem, cleaning his flat calling social services visiting A and E, even; being practical. When I look at the pictures, later, on my own, is often when I get emotional about his condition. The photographs help me see the huge problems, Justin has had to deal with in his life; they are written into the shape of his face.

Doing this project has allowed me to think of and relate to Justin in a different way. I can understand and empathise with him from a different place and with deeper understanding. What this book has really taught me though is that Justin is hugely resilient, he is a survivor and the take away for the audience is that his passion for bird watching has been an integral part of his survival process, a form of self medication if you like.

@louisquail on Instagram