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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.