Nicolette Clara Iles

Nicolette Clara Iles is a photographer and writer based in London. She uses her experiences of borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder to influence her surrealistic photography. Her photography is "inspired by the surreal and turning the real into the surreal, along with early photographic inspirations (such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Pictorialism etc)." She uses colour and form to illustrate feelings and tell a story in image-form.

What is your background in photography? How did you get into it and how would you describe your work?

I always loved taking pictures but I first got into photography during and after a 6-month stay in a psychiatric ward as a teenager. I snuck a disposable camera into the building and took film pictures of my surroundings etc. When I left, I started doing self-portraits on a little pocket digital camera then got a cheap SLR soon after. It was then I started doing portraits and more artistic ‘work’ with my photography. At 16, I began doing test shoots with agency models and friends etc. I would describe my work as surreal and based in colour with emotion mostly.

How do your own experiences with mental health (you mention your BPD diagnosis) manifest in your work?

Well I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder first, then BPD so technically it’s a co-morbid diagnosis that I deal with. I never used to see that it manifested within my work until I was told that my photographs were very ‘emotional’, then I realised that indeed how I feel corresponds with how images turn out, and even the ideas behind them, too. I recently did a shoot that was a gentle nudge towards my symptoms, with scissors to represent ‘cutting off’ and I think my common usage of hands within my work shows a lot of personal things. I also created a ‘demon’ character who was supposed to be the version of myself I fight with.

Nicolette Clara Iles

Nicolette Clara Iles

How important is process to you? What is it like to create the work for you?

Process, especially recently, is quite important to me. If I feel a certain way, it almost always shows in the images. I find the build-up to creating an image exciting but also exhausting, in the way that it takes up a lot of energy to be excited and the worry of getting it ‘right’. I like to have a calm atmosphere when I’m shooting for everyone involved, all the while pushing to get the shapes and forms the way I initially imagined them to show through.

Where does the value lie in your work — in the creating, or the final piece?

If I can say both, then yes both! Sometimes it feels as though, once a story or image has come into fruition, that it’s like ‘right, I can move on from that chapter now’ and sometimes it’s something that never ends and continues to be a theme within my work and life. I like seeing the final result and it being how I imagined, or even different in a better way, but the creation of that is part of it, too.

Nicolette Clara Iles

Nicolette Clara Iles

What do you hope viewers take from your work?

Feelings, I just want people to feel ‘something’ when they view my work. Whether that be disgust or love or even a relatable, familiar feeling, just something that takes away from the sometimes-dull aspects of life - colourful emotion, that’s how i’d put it perhaps.

What are you working on now?

I currently would like to venture into more self-portraiture and also creating characters from other people, based on these real and unreal selves - a series of these would be ideal. I also am hoping to work into doing art therapy for people, combining my experiences with both art and the mind to help others fulfil expressing via creation.


Elegia is a self-taught artist from Scotland, currently residing in Manchester, working with analog and mixed media processes to explore body dysmorphia and her bipolar disorder.

How did you initially get into photography?

I got into photography in a roundabout way via modelling in late 2011; in an effort to get more comfortable in front of the camera. I know that it sounds contradictory for a model to struggle with having their photograph taken, but most models that I know and have met have issues with how they look. Photography was what really got me interested in modelling in the first place, because I came from an artistic background and I saw this a creative outlet similar to that. I wanted to be a good model and to feel at ease with the camera. I quickly discovered that my main issue was with having my face photographed and so I started shooting some basic self-portraits with a little compact camera that I had at home. I didn't have a tripod, so I'd just tape it onto a lamp stand and do the best that I could with the tools I had at the time. I probably produced little more than a handful of images in those first few months that I was happy to upload anywhere, but they were enough to get the attention of other models who then asked to work with me. Soon after I was pretty much only shooting other models and put my self-portrait work to one side, whilst I tried to improve and gain more experience behind the camera. I came back around to doing self-portraits a couple of years ago and it's now the bulk of my work.

Can you explain a little about what body dysmorphia is and how it affected/affects you?

Body dysmorphia is a mental disorder which affects how you perceive your appearance. It works in the same way in which my OCD does, in that it create obsessive and compulsive thoughts. The main effect that it has had on my life is that I have problems with being looked at which creates social anxiety and panic attacks, and in my teens I was very much housebound for most of the time. During this period I developed Trichotillomania, which is another obsessive compulsive disorder that involves hair pulling. I have never recovered from the Trichotillomania, but I have found physical ways to deal with it like shaving my hair off.

What is it about the photographic process that results in catharsis for you?

Photography has enabled me to tackle, manage, study, but also document some of the disorders that I have. It has helped to desensitise me to my own image because I have had to look at so many photographs of myself from so many different angles. Whilst I still perceive myself as flawed and the things I see wrong about my appearance still very much exist, I'm able to see past those in order to create work. I think one of the huge things that it has given me is the desire and want for something, a sort of sense that I'm aiming and working towards a goal. I've had to travel a lot to shoot with people. and that's meant I've discovered ways to manage my disorders away from home and around strangers. I enjoy photography so much that even things that scare me I find that I can face in order to further my work. In my teens I wasn't able to leave the house just to go to the shop without four hours of preparing myself, whereas now I can get on a train or an aeroplane on my own. Even though I still have the same fears and anxieties, I am able to take them on in order to do the things that I want to do.

Is there a particularly poignant time where photography has served a therapeutic purpose for you?

I got myself out of an abusive situation in 2012 and soon after suffered a complete mental breakdown. Whilst I was dealing with and recovering from that I had my photography to focus on. Models would be emailing to ask to work with me, and so I'd have shoots booked in that meant I had something to look forward to each week. In a very basic way it gave me a purpose and an outlet for what was going on in my head at that time. I think it would have been very easy for me to shut myself away during that period, but photography kept me outdoors and out meeting new people despite all of the anxiety and depression I was fighting with. I didn't realise that this is what was happening at the time, that I was stopping myself from getting more ill. I just knew that I had found this new thing that I loved doing and nothing really seemed scary enough to stop me from wanting to do it.

What is it that draws you to analogue and alternative processes in photography?

The only camera I had when I started photography was a broken compact that I'd taken with me during a trip to America. The screen was broken and the back was held together with a hair tie. So when I used it on my very first model shoot, I couldn't even check on the screen to see how the images looked! I didn't have any real funds to buy myself a DSLR, but I found so many used film cameras on Ebay that were within my budget. So I gradually bought a few and taught myself how to use them. With film photography you have to know what you're doing in order to get anything out of the equipment, so it was very much a learning curve for me and a method that I still thrive from. I love the hands on element of it all, from developing my film at home to then printing from those negatives. I guess it goes back to my background with painting; I love tangible imagery and the physical experience of seeing and touching a picture. Making something with your hands is such a wonderful experience.

Image by Elegia

Image by Elegia

How do you see your photography practice developing?

Learning is my favourite aspect of photography and I feel like I'm a million miles away from where I really want to be with my work. However, to me that means there is no limit to what else I can do and can learn. I've been working with moving film, although I don't have anything that I feel I'd want to show anyone just yet! I think this a format that I very much want to get better at and hopefully I can use as another way to express myself and my own experiences.

Antonia Attwood

Antonia Attwood is a photographer and film maker that has been making work surrounding the subject of mental health for around 2 years. She is a recent graduate from the (London College of Communication) BA Photography course and has been working since with The Institute of Inner Vision on a number of projects and commissions within arts and mental health.

This body of work is as an exploration of a mothers experience with Bipolar disorder, as imagined through the eyes of her daughter. The body of work builds on how the condition is experienced by the mother, scrutinizing her internal and external worlds. By juxtaposing moving image on two screens, I aim to illustrate and visually interpret how the illness ‘feels’. The metaphorical symbols create an attempt to raise awareness and understanding of the mood affectations and the phenomenology of mental illness. The work interrogates how it feels to be vulnerable and overwhelmed by the world living with a medical condition. The viewer is forced into the uncomfortable reality of the illness. It arises from but transcends the mothers experience with Bipolar. It is not about communicating a straightforward message, but it interrogates an idea exploring aspects of that intended message.

What prompted you to produce work surrounding bipolar disorder?
The work was prompted by my mothers experience with the condition. I was inspired by how she dealt with her disorder. We wanted to share our story and raise awareness of the illness. With the hope that it would help people understand what is going through someones head when they are in an altered state.

What kind of research did you carry out on the condition before beginning work on My Mother Tongue?
Most of the research was through direct conversation with my mum. We talked a lot about her experiences and how she felt during episodes of the illness. It was a great way for me to learn more about what she was going through. I also read a lot of books on the condition such as 'Strictly Bipolar' by Darian Leader and 'the Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Was there an element of catharsis related to making this work, for yourself and/or your mother?
Yes definitely. It helped me understand what my mother had been through much better. We have always been very close but I think it was a great therapy for us to work on this together.

What drew you to work with mental health in your art?
The first time I started working with mental health was when I made a film about my own experiences with panic attacks. I tried to use film to visually interpret how I was feeling whilst having a panic attack. Since making this film around 2 years ago I have not experienced a panic attack since. I felt that my art was a great therapy for me and wanted to help other people too.

Do you think it is important to use art to represent issues relating to mental health? Why? Can it help with wider understanding of such issues?
I felt that many people suffering with mental health problems were misunderstood. Illness is often explained in medical term through complicated reports. I felt that my experience was much more personal and learning about my mothers illness through a visual language really helped my understanding. I think making art about mental health can be a really helpful tool to make more easily understood and accessible.

What is it about the video format that appeals to you?
I think video lends itself really well. Because often what is going on in the mind is such a visual thing. I think using moving image and sound can create an experience, which is exactly what I want my work to portray. That is not to say I don't think other art forms and therapies aren't helpful. But personally film works for me.

What have responses been like to My Mother Tongue? Have you had feedback from people living with bipolar disorder?
Yes I have had loads of great feedback, both from people suffering with the illness and people who know people who are suffering. Many people have thanked me for visually explaining what they have been going through, something they have struggled with themselves. I even had someone want to show the film at a friends funeral who lost her life to the disorder. Which I found immensely touching. I hope that it keeps helping people understand someone suffering with the illness, and helping people who are struggling to explain what they are going through.

Can you tell me more about the Institute of Inner Vision?
The Institute of Inner Vision was set up by Sal Anderson around 2 years ago. The primary aim of the Institute is to create and curate programmes of moving image, performance and public engagement exploring individual and collective inner visions. This initiative endeavours to bring artists, academics, and audiences - with or without lived experiences of mental health conditions - into the heart of interdisciplinary art-science research and artistic practice.

What is coming up next for you?
I am currently working on a commission from the Institute of Inner Vision. It is another short film that follows on from 'My Mother Tongue'. Its still very much in progress but I am excited about it. I am still working closely with mental health and exhibiting work. I recently did a film showing and talk with the 'Acting Out Festival' in Nottingham. If you want to find out about any other upcoming events I update them regularly on my website -