Samira Saidi created her series Ecosystems of Healing to explore the ways in which Western frameworks have determined how mental wellbeing is interpreted and addressed. “The common understanding of trauma and mental wellbeing has been shaped by the experience of the West and often forms a bubble of misunderstanding towards different approaches,” she explains. In relation to wellbeing, she describes facing inwards and “oneness” as a product of Western societies, and situates ideas of family, spirituality and nature in African communities.
The photo series takes a broad view of mental health in the global south, but chooses West Africa as the site of exploration, namely Accra in Ghana. Saidi photographed models primarily in natural settings: the forest in Legon towards the northeast of the city, the oceanfront in the coastal district Jamestown, and the railway lines found in Dzorwulu.
Saidi’s photographs are laden with symbolism that evokes both individualistic and shared experiences of wellbeing. In some, faces are obscured by masks filled with feathers and spheres, which block the entryways to the eyes and mouth, stopping anything coming in or going out.
Inspired by a dream Saidi had, the masks are “a representation of how it feels when I am personally going through episodes of depression or anxiety,” says the photographer, who is based between Ghana and Austria. “Often the face and mind seem to be detached from the rest of my body.” Not only do disguises reflect the instinct to “retreat” into oneself, but also the difficulty in “putting these types of emotions into words – the feeling of being in a downward spiral that one can’t escape”.
Other symbols allude to the idea of sharing experiences of mental health and how this process can begin to form “ecosystems of healing” with others. In one photograph, two people appear bonded together – eyes and mouth still closed, but minds interconnected
by their overlapping headdress. In another, the models gaze in different directions to one another, but twin circular motifs appear on their faces. “The circles around the models’ eyes are used in the images to show the later part of the mental health journey – there is more positivity, community forms and one understands that they are not the only ones that go through these experiences,” she explains.
Saidi has found that the pursuit of mental wellbeing is a journey people often attempt alone, whether because of feelings of shame or because we simply consider it our own mantle to bear. “We often want to go through our trauma and mental health issues by ourselves, or feel the absence of support in this journey,” Saidi says. “However, there are different understandings of support in different cultural societies. The images show the ambiguity of oneness and community in the area of healing and mental health.”
Models: Dzigbordi Agbettoh, Matthew Osei
Assistant: Tarus P Cole