From 1848 through 1858, Hugh Welch Diamond, Medical Superintendent at the Surrey County Asylum and one of the founders of the Royal Photographic Society, created a series of portraits of the patients in his care. His intention at the time was to use these photographs to diagnose and better care for people struggling with mental health issues. Today, the efficacy of this kind of treatment is unclear at best, but Diamond’s pictures remain some of the most well-known from photography’s early history.
Although their faces are relatively famous, information about many of the women in Diamond’s photographs is scarce. Held in some of the leading art museums in the world, people visit them and wonder about who they were and what they felt. In some cases, their gazes are unwavering and direct, as if they’re somehow reaching through the years.
Our understanding of mental health has evolved leaps and bounds since the Victorian era, but we continue to grapple with many of the same questions as we did back then. In the UK, one in four adults live with a mental health issue. As the English journalist Suzanne Moore wrote late last year, “The problems are clear to see…. You can read the stats or you could just open your eyes.”
Among increased conversations about mental health, a new generation of photographers has emerged to document and confront their experience of living with mental illness. In 2015, the London-based photographer and artistic director Daniel Regan created fragmentary.org, a website devoted entirely to exploring mental health through photography and related media.
He now also runs the Arts & Health Hub, a place for artists delving into these topics to connect in the real world. Other movements have cropped up around the world, including The Too Tired Project, founded last year by Tara Wray, a writer, photographer and author of the book Too Tired for Sunshine. Artists around the world can submit images to the popular Instagram feed using the hashtag #tootiredproject.
Slowly but surely, more authentic images are also entering the mainstream. A few years ago, ‘Time to Change’— a campaign working to combat mental health discrimination — launched a project designed to change the way the media depicts mental health issues. Called Get the Picture, the initiative challenged stereotypical and inaccurate representations in the news.
The campaign drew attention to the prevalence of what they termed “the ‘headclutcher’ photo. You know the one: you’re reading an article about depression, and at the top of the page, there’s a picture of a person holding their head in their hands. Although this can be an outward expression of despair, when poorly executed, it can come across as a mocking and reductive depiction of depression.
Stocksy photography duo Isaiah and Taylor’s “invisibility” series exemplifies a more nuanced method of capturing the experience of living with mental health issues. Touching on themes of isolation and pervasive alienation they have had to carry, Isaiah & Taylor express their own chronic struggles through their photography. Because they come from a personal space, these images have the ability to communicate authentically with the wide audience of people who share similar afflictions and can start important conversations.
Artists have always made deeply personal work that can be confessional and about the complexities of mental health. “What seems to be changing is that the stigma of mental health is slowly being eroded and, in general, people feel more at ease in talking about it, particularly depression and anxiety,” fragmentary.org’s Daniel Regan shares. “It opens the door for more artists to make work about their personal experiences and share it with a wider audience. Since photography is a relatively democratic and accessible medium, now it means that there are greater opportunities for people to explore photography as a medium to process, document, and conceptualise inner states in a therapeutic manner.”
These images can be difficult to create and to view, but they could have more potential than we realise. Authentic photography is just one of many ways in which we can tell and share first-person narratives around mental health, suffering, and healing – but it’s a powerful one. When words fail, imagery helps fill in the blanks. Photographers working to unpack this topic could have a pivotal role to play in raising awareness and starting important conversations.
In the 1800s, Diamond studied portraits of his patients in an attempt to understand them better. But imagine for a moment if he had turned the camera in the opposite direction and invited his patients to create images of their own. What might he have discovered then?
Stocksy United is a multi-stakeholder co-operative home to a curated collection of royalty free stock photography and video footage; stocksy.com. You can see more imagery exploring mental health here.