Exploring mental health through photography

View Gallery 8 Photos
Reading Time: 7 minutes

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we share a selection of projects that explore some of the many issues that surround mental health disorders

Mental health problems are a growing public health concern, both globally and in the UK. Now, we are in the midst of a pandemic which, for many, has restricted the way we live: economically, and, more importantly, socially. A recent survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists revealed a 43 per cent increase in urgent and emergency mental health cases since the end of March, with many experts fearing a “tsunami” of mental health cases as we begin to ease out of the Covid-19 lockdown. During a time when comfort is what we need most, alienating concepts such as ‘isolation’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ have become ingrained in our everyday vocabulary.

During this prolonged period of uncertainty, it is important now, more than ever, to raise awareness and look out for one another’s mental health. To mark this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, here, we feature a range of projects that interrogate the many issues surrounding mental health disorders.

Léonie Hampton documents her mother’s struggle with OCD

“The house was absolutely full of things which were undealt with,” Léonie Hampton says, referencing the beginnings of her project, In the Shadow of Things. “Part of the practical task was to slowly go through room by room sorting, trying to reclaim space, to get rooms functioning again.”

Hampton’s mother has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a mental health condition which has many different iterations and which, in her case, manifests as a contamination phobia and hoarding. The photographer’s childhood home had become overrun by boxes, and she came to an arrangement with her family: she would photograph the process of the family coming together to go through them all, dismantling and organising.

The images themselves do not describe a linear narrative, nor does any one image encapsulate the subject neatly or clearly; instead, the work serves as a visual metaphor for the nature of Hampton and her family’s shared experience throughout the period. In one picture, a lawn is covered by a patchwork of colourful skirts, dresses, and jeans, which stretch across the grass and recede into the background.

Other pictures show a bright wood, full of bluebells, or pale sun on a garden chair. “I wanted to make a piece of work which didn’t describe, or narrate, but brought you into the feeling of that space,” explains Hampton, who was working to “visually transcribe the emotional terrain” of the experience. To make work that challenges the clichés and stigmas of mental health at the level of society must start with the possibility of change, even in the mind of the photographer themselves. “Some of what you’ll need to look at is your own misguided understanding,” Hampton says.


From In the Shadow of Things. © Léonie Hampton.

Georgie Wileman: “I want the vulnerability of men to be shown”

Boys Do Cry by Brooklyn-based British photographer Georgie Wileman portrays the scourge of suicide through the lives of a selection of young men, each of who has endured depression, survived suicide attempts, or suffered through the loss of a loved one. “Suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45,” explains Wileman. “I wanted the vulnerability of men to be shown. I don’t believe we give men the space to be weaker.”

Wileman’s approach to the project was shaped by her own experiences. Since the age of 13, she has had endometriosis, a painful condition that affects one in 10 women. “Living with depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety as a result of PTSD myself, I related deeply to my subjects, and knew this was a story I needed to tell,” says Wileman. “I create my work to help others feel acknowledged in their pain.”

One explanation for the disproportionate number of men attempting suicide is a culturally conditioned disinclination to discuss mental health issues. In seeking out her subjects, Wileman decided to first open up about herself. “By approaching conversations in an open, honest way I found people were willing to give me the same back,” she explains. “When flyering for the project, I met two young men and when I asked if they knew of anyone who suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, one of them replied, ‘Aren’t we all?’. His honest response spurred the work on.”

Exposing a nationwide phenomenon through a series of intimate encounters, Boys Do Cry grants vitality to an issue too often left faceless.


© Georgie Wileman.

Giles Price ignites a conversation about stigma and mental health in communities affected by disaster

On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Japan unleashed a tsunami that caused a level seven nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant — the world’s largest disaster since Chernobyl. The government established a 30-km exclusion zone and evacuated 160,000 people. Nine years on, roughly 50,000 people are still displaced, and although there are signs of recovery — communities further away from the power plant have been restored — there is still a stigma and fear attached to the land.

Photographer Giles Price, who documented some of these affected communities, says that despite the level of fear that arose from the nuclear fallout in Fukushima, there have been no direct deaths from the radiation itself — with the possible exception of one plant worker who died of leukaemia shortly after the accident. The biggest cause of death was the evacuation process — around 60 elderly people died as they were rushed out of care homes and hospitals — and a surge in suicides that followed an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“People’s lives were uprooted overnight, livelihoods were lost, families were split up and relocated to other areas,” says Price. “The long-term health issues have turned out to be more to do with mental health.” In his latest photobook, Restricted Residence, Price uses thermal imaging to instigate a wider conversation about the non-tangible issues relating to disasters such as stress and mental health.

As the world finds itself in an unprecedented crisis, Price’s work encourages us to rethink our perceptions of communities in crisis. “We all have to be aware and talk about these issues,” he says, adding that Covid-19 and radiation are similar in that they are both unseen dangers that can cause anxiety and mental health issues. “These images also show human resilience, and raise questions about the wider ramifications of how people live with disasters everywhere.”


© Giles Price, 2019. Courtesy Loose Joints.

Sole Satana’s personal representation of anxiety and depression

Although it is Spanish photographer Sole Satana’s latest body of work, From a Bad Place was conceived several years ago, during a difficult time when she was struggling with anxiety and depression. “It is an exploration of my inner self, my way of seeing life. I needed to explore my feelings and represent them in the way I know best” says the photographer. “It’s a very personal vision, not an absolute truth. I like people to have their own impressions and interpretations.”

Closely related to her personal experiences, Satana’s photography tells a very subjective story about her take on everyday life. “There are times when I feel better and times when it hits me harder,” Santana admits. “I have learned to live with anxiety and depression, and most of the time I just manage them. In those moments photography helped me… Sometimes taking those pictures was pure instinct, and to edit this work allowed closure to that part of my life.”


© Sole Satana

Edgar Martins contemplates the emotional impact of incarceration

Edgar Martins set himself a challenge when he embarked on the project that would culminate in his two-book publication, What Photography and Incarceration Have in Common With an Empty Vase, developed in collaboration with Grain Projects and HM Prison Birmingham. Feeling that photography often sensationalises prisons and the lives of inmates, Martins vowed to tackle the subject differently.

“All the imagery that we associate with prisons works to legitimise a certain idea that we have about incarceration,” Martins declares. “So I thought, ‘How do I overcome this?’ I thought it would be important for me to retain a connection with the inmates. Because my project is not necessarily about the problems that prisons face, but about how people in them deal with being inside, and how people outside deal with their loved ones being inside.”

His approach was twofold: to befriend a few inmates, and to take photographs outside the walls of the prison. He also appropriated newspaper imagery and used visual representations of violence and absence to allude to the condition of inmates, their feelings of emptiness, and relationships with their families. As the project developed, another stream of thought occurred – that of publishing one inmate’s diaries as a memoir, some pages overlaid with images, in order to provide a counterpoint to the photography book.

Martins’ humanistic endeavour empathises with the separation between the prisoners and their families, and the emotional impact of incarceration. Occupying an interstitial realm of factual and fictional images, documentation and imagination, the project sees him subverting and reconfiguring visual methodology with sensitivity and intellect.


© Edgar Martins

Louis Quail’s Big Brother

“If you are on the lowest rung of society, if when you get on a bus people turn away from you, it’s nice to be noticed,” says Louis Quail. “It’s nice to be seen.”  Shot over six years, Big Brother is a portrait of Quail’s older brother Justin, who is now 60, and has suffered from schizophrenia for his whole adult life.

Quail doesn’t shy away from the obvious effects of his brother’s illness, showing his wrecked shoes and chaotic flat, and including police notes and medical records that speak of medication, sectioning and arrest. But his project also shows another side to Justin – one less familiar, perhaps, in our conception of the mentally ill. It includes Justin’s excellent drawings and paintings, his poetry, and his love of bird watching.

“I wanted to show people what it’s like being mentally ill, all the lights and all the shades,” says Quail. “It’s something people probably haven’t seen before because, unless you have someone in your family who has schizophrenia, then it’s something you just don’t see. People are so obsessed with protecting the mentally ill they become like a war zone, with no access to the media, and therefore forgotten about.”

“When you meet Justin the stigma is there, you know straight away that there is a problem,” he continues. “But for me, it’s a story about resilience as much as anything else. Justin copes with his mental health really well – and if he can cope with all of that, then maybe there are things that we can learn from him.”


I remember when I was aged ten or so the local lads would take the mickey out of me because Justin, in his late teens at the time, would walk bare-footed around Briston in Norfolk, where I went to the village school. By this time, Justin had firmly embraced the ‘hobo-hippy’ lifestyle, but it was always the bird watching that really mattered. Today it’s this passion that brings the light to the shade; when Justin does remark on having a good day, there is normally a list of birds to follow. From the series Big Brother © Louis Quail

Laia Abril: On Eating Disorders

In 2010, Laia Abril started a project about eating disorders, looking head-on at the daily life of a family who lost their 26-year-old daughter, Cammy, to bulimia. Working closely with the family, Abril reconstructed Cammy’s life in a photobook, The Epilogue, through flashbacks  — memories, testimonies, objects, letters, places and images.

Out of this came a second part to the project, Thinspiration, in which Abril documented the controversial ‘pro-ana’ community — a group of bloggers who promote the eating disorder as a “lifestyle choice”. “They personify anorexia as Ana, a character with dogmas about the illness,” explains Abril on her website. Members worship Ana, and as a result, they create ‘thin commandments’ and motivational tricks which help them to stay thin or lose more weight. Abril’s images are photographs of computer screens depicting thousands of vernacular self-portraits taken by pro-ana members and shared on their blogs.

10 years since the photographer began her investigation into eating disorders, anorexia “coaching” is still rife on the internet and social media — most recently, the viral video platform TikTok has been called out for hosting disturbing pro-anorexia content. Since the start of lockdown, eating disorder charity BEAT has recorded a 50 percent rise in calls to its helpline, with many other charities concerned that a reduction in hospital services could result in an increase in new cases and setbacks for those with active eating disorders.

The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline on 0808 801 0677.


“Food is the enemy my body is the battle field.” Source: Pro-Ana website. Thinspiration are images of skinny women, usually celebrities or models, who may be anything from naturally slim to skeletal with visibly protruding bones. Those are posted on Pro-Ana blogs and sites by bloggers, forum members and social networking groups to motivate themselves or one another toward further weight loss; many of these girls suffer from an eating disorders, specifically anorexia or bulimia. This community of bloggers, also known as the Pro-Ana community, promote the eating disorder anorexia as a 'life style choice'; they personify anorexia into Ana, a character with dogmas about the illness. Recently, there are more Pro-Ana bloggers that have begun to take and post self-portraits in order to inspire and display their success; these self-portraits are called the "Real Thinspiration”. These girls venerate Ana; as a result, they created 'Thin Commandments' and motivational tricks, which together with the Thinspiration images, help them to stay thin or loose more weight. Note: The images in this chapter are the result of photographs that I took of the computer screens depicting thousands of vernacular self-portraits taken by Pro-Ana members and shared on their blogs and websites and reinterpreting their relationship between their body and the camera.