Bex Day explores the experience of OCD from isolation

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This Mental Health Awareness Week, Day discusses Seesaw — an ongoing series created in response to her experiences of OCD during and before the pandemic, and the emotional ups-and-downs experienced by society at large during this time

Bex Day looks across a stretch of water, silk robe billowing out behind. Golden sunlight washes over her and her fiery hair glows beneath it. Freedom and release sweep through the image — a brief respite from the confines of lockdown and Day’s internal strictures — the Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) from which she suffers, and which the pandemic has worked to provoke. “[The image, below] was freeing to create,” reflects Day, “and I felt like I learned a lot from making it”.

The photograph, titled Seesaw, is part of an ongoing series of the same name. The project encompasses a number of themes and derives, in part, from self-reflection — Day’s attempt to visualise her OCD — but, also from a need to address the universal struggles faced by society during Covid-19 — mainly relationships, social issues, and mental health.

“The act of shooting in public alone was a great form of exposure for my social anxiety,” continues Day, referencing the same image, for which she dragged a chair 20 minutes from home. “Exposure is really important for recovery; when you fear something you must be proactive in overcoming it.”

The series depicts many of the anxieties that we face at this time, and, for Day, making it has worked to ease these ever so slightly by allowing her to acknowledge them in the open. Below, she discusses the series and her experience of lockdown — its impact on her life and work.

“With OCD it is sometimes hard to understand which thoughts are your own and which come from the disorder”

Seesaw. Covid-19 creates an uneven path for many people, particularly in terms of work, relationships, and mental health. Many people are stuck at home alone, without any company or help. Seesaw juxtaposes the extremities of the virus: the hardships many face, but also the sense of freedom injected into our society. During these times of loss, there is a sense of growth — of slowing down and spending time with yourself and, although often virtually, with friends and family too © Bex Day.
Garden. Garden is how I express the simulation of our normal lives, which we are having to create in our homes. I have found solace in my creative endeavours. My mother and I painted this backdrop together to pass the time. To stay productive and active, we have all had to compress the space in which we enact our lifestyles — whether that's working from home, getting exercise or entertaining our families. We are bound by the restrictions staying at home has on our lives © Bex Day.

Where are you isolating and how has the pandemic affected you?

The pandemic has definitely thrown many things up into the air. A lot of jobs have been cancelled as I usually work in a big team. Thankfully, I still feel creative and have embarked on new still and video projects such as Seesaw.

I am currently in Hammersmith, London, where I am shooting most of the series. Covid-19 has affected my mental health causing my OCD to flare up. This is one of the main elements that I want to explore in Seesaw.

How did the idea for Seesaw develop? Can you explain the title?

I have wanted to do a series specific to OCD for a while as I was diagnosed with it two years ago. However, I have been thinking about ways to convey the specifics of the disorder through photography.

I noticed my OCD flaring up during lockdown, and thought it would be the perfect time to work on a more self-reflective project. This led me to consolidate all of my thoughts about my identity and frame them within the impact Covid-19 has had on me and the world around me.

A central element of the series is to highlight the emotional ups-and-downs that the pandemic has caused. However, the project should also be a wider conversation about the human condition. With this in mind, Seesaw felt like the perfect name for the work – it reflects the tumult of emotions we are all experiencing.

Seesaws are also reminiscent of childhood. They evoke memories of playing in playgrounds with my father, who passed away in February, just before the pandemic, with a sudden case of leukaemia. His death has made me think a lot about my childhood and the ups-and-downs that I experienced then. He also struggled, undiagnosed, with OCD.

Zilch. Zilch is a playful depiction of the issue of stockpiling during the pandemic. On my first shopping trip after the initial announcements about the virus spreading to the UK, I turned into the aisle with toilet paper and saw nothing but empty shelves. People had ravaged whatever they could get their hands on. Staring down the tube of a used roll felt like the best representation of what I saw that day © Bex Day.
Paper Bag. A brown paper symbolises hyperventilation; this photograph symbolises the vulnerability and delicateness myself and others have encountered so far. It is a coping mechanism to deal with the discomfort brought by the pandemic — the uncertainty stemming from enforced isolation, a situation many have felt suffocated by © Bex Day.
© Bex Day.

“Every time you make work you grow in some way or another. Being confronted with your mind and your perception of self allows for personal development”

The series explores subjects the pandemic has impacted — relationships, mental health, and other social issues. Why is it important to address these themes? Did your approach evolve from personal experience, or in reaction to things that you observed around you — Covid-19’s effect on society at large?

I want to document Covid-19’s internal and external effects. Relationships and other social issues are vital to the series’ foundations because I know that, as a nation, they are what we are all struggling with. I want to emphasise that even though we must remain two metres apart the difficulties faced by many of us can work to unite us — hopefully, that will encourage a wider sense of togetherness within communities and strengthen our sense of empathy for one another.

I was interested in making the series intimate and personal, particularly as I have often felt alone with my OCD. I used to worry about being more public about it because I was focusing too much on how others would perceive, or judge, me. But, I decided it was more important to share my story and recognised that this was just another form of social anxiety, which I would be happy to overcome.

Essentially, I do not want people to feel as lonely as I once did on my journey. I have noticed this attitude is spreading among many people, which is definitely one of the pandemic’s biggest positives.

Has the pandemic, and all the anxiety and unease bound up with it, affected your creative practice?

Definitely. On the one hand, I feel compromised by the boundaries and parameters that the pandemic has set for my work and daily practice. However, I am treating the restrictions like a brief for a job — one always has to work in certain confines when undertaking commercial work.

Self-isolating also means I have to be my own subject — I style myself and do my hair and make-up. I have definitely found myself yearning for my talented teams to help out. It is not easy trying to style your own hair — that’s for sure!

Fortunately, the lockdown has allowed me to process and come to a better understanding of my feelings towards the situation. Some days it is more difficult to stay motivated, but staying present and treating each day as it comes is key. I am keen to achieve balance in my daily life and be as kind to myself as possible in order to stay positive.

Spring. Individuals who had less interest in the great outdoors have developed a desire to go on long walks, since being confined to their homes during the lockdown. It’s a breath of fresh air. People have been so dependent on screens in recent memory. However, now that they are trapped inside with their iPhones and computers, all they want to do is rebel and experience the environment. Spring represents this revived thirst we have to return to nature and nature’s rejuvenation in our absence © Bex Day.

You have shot fashion editorials for numerous publications, and commercial campaigns, and personal work about the UK’s older transgender community. How does making work in isolation compare to the kind of projects and commissions you are used to – has it given you the space to discover new things about your practice and even yourself? What has been your experience of turning the camera on yourself?

Comparatively, it contrasts starkly to my usual work. Normally, I am completely focused on the person I am shooting, and the team that I am working with — meandering into my subject’s thoughts, and learning about them in order to depict them as authentically, and as empowered, as possible.

However, this approach translates to the images I make when shooting myself — I am thoughtful and fixated on the message, which I am trying to convey in each setting. I have to be sensitive to my own needs, my own identity, and the portrayal of my true self.

With OCD it is sometimes hard to understand which thoughts are your own and which come from the disorder. So, I treat it like a game; I guess that is where the playfulness of the images derives from. I knew that I wanted the captions to be important too — the images’ messages are as vital as the images themselves.

Every time you make work you grow in some way or another. Being confronted with your mind and your perception of self allows for personal development.

Turning the camera on myself has definitely allowed for increased awareness of, and decisiveness about, what I want from an image. I find a location I am happy with or a photograph that is right for the image I want to create. Then I am ready to make the work happen. Some shoots take longer than others, but, generally, I know what I want and this enhances my creative flow.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.