No dressing gowns allowed! Photographing mental distress

Despite my recent low mood, being involved with the anti-stigma photography project has continued to be a source of interest and enjoyment for me. I have now met Helen on three occasions, and I think am a lot clearer about what the project is trying to achieve. What Helen most emphatically does not want to do is to recreate any of the tired old visual stereotypes which tend to associated with mental health. We’ve all seen them; those stock photos, pulled out to go at the top of newspaper articles on things like anti-depressant prescribing rates, or the amount of sick days attributable to mental illness. If you can’t quite visualise what I mean, try typing “mental illness photos” or “depression photos” into Google image search. You’ll probably see something like this: a person, usually white, often a woman, shown with their head in their hands; their hands on their temples; or their arms wrapped around their legs with their head on their knees. The person looks away from the camera, down or to the side. Change the search term to “women depression” and you get a lot of shots of Helen’s pet hate – sad woman wearning pyjamas or dressing gown (I only found one shot of a woman looking sad in a snappy suit). Of course, like many other people, I do spend a lot of time in that “dressing gown and unwashed hair” state when I’m depressed, but photographing me looking that way just doesn’t tell you very much about what’s going on inside. It doesn’t tell you if I’m lonely, if I’m terrified of people, if I’m despairing, if I feel dead inside, if I am paranoid, if I am thinking obsessively, or if my thoughts have slowed to glacial speed.

Interested in the idea that Head in Hands is how, culturally, we envision mental illness, and Dressing Gown is how envision depression, I began to use Google image search to look up photographs representing other mental health conditions. The results can be pretty much summed up as follows:

Anxiety/anxiety disorder: The old Head in Hands shot; plus people gnawing or chewing on their fingers, lips or knuckles; and a lesser number of people peeping at the camera through their fingers.

OCD: Endless shots of hands being washed.

Schizophrenia: Apparently our cultural imagination has no idea what this looks like. The best we can do are anatomical diagrams or medical imaging cross-sections of the brain – shots of whole people are in short supply.

Bipolar disorder: The inevitable comedy/tragedy masks, with a few composite pictures of the same person photographed looking both happy and sad then Photoshopped together.

Borderline Personality Disorder: Another one where picture editors are apparently struggling mightily. The only tenuous theme was a couple of shots suggesting self-harm.

Eating disorders: A weird array of clearly underweight catwalk models, and the standard Head in Hands, only now involving a plate or a set of weighing scales.

After undertaking this exercise, I understand more and more why Helen thinks there is a problem with the standard approach to photographing mental distress. Either we don’t know how to signify a person’s condition at all, or it’s difficult to depict their distress without resorting to cliché. Helen’s approach is to ask her subjects to suggest how they would like to be photographed to convey the internal experience of their particular mental health condition. We’ve been working on a number of ideas, which are evolving all the time. Helen was interested in my most recent post for the International Bipolar Foundation, in which I draw on fairy-tale imagery, including seeing myself as an unsmiling “princess in the tower”; we have already undertaken one photo shoot doing our best to depict that. We have also worked, as planned, with a mask, using it to show how I put on my external persona, along with my work clothes and jewellery, when I leave for the office every day. Next I want to play around with trying to represent visually the way I have described hypomania as feeling as if I am at a fabulous party. I have an outfit which makes me feel like a Hollywood starlet – evening gown, shrug, long gloves and sparkly necklace – and the idea once again is to have the outside of me reflect my interior world. I like the fact that Helen picks up ideas from my blogging, and these then form the inspiration for some of the shoots.

What’s really interesting to me about all of these ideas is how they play with aspects of femininity. I joked to Helen that just as you get versions of Barbie – ballerina Barbie, ice-skating Barbie, movie star Barbie, etc – I felt like we were creating/discovering Princess Lotty, Cocktail Party Lotty, etc, in additional to my more usual guise of Office Lotty. (I’m relieved to see that these days Barbie also gets to be an architect, a vet, a computer engineer and doctor, although her outfits are still unfeasibly tight and pink.) While I have been pondering on all of this, Laurie Penny has been blogging on fashion and feminism (Handbags, gowns and girl armour) at the New Statesman. Reflecting on her own gradual smartening up for work purposes, Penny notes that “as women, everything we wear is a statement, and we have no right to remain sartorially silent. We negotiate a field of signifiers every time we open our wardrobes.” Femininity and glamour are constructs (or perhaps, as Penny suggests later in the article, battle armour), and constructs take energy and strength to create. Our stock image of a mentally unwell woman is of someone who can’t pull together such a construct, hence Dressing Gown. We don’t have a metal image of a woman battling a personality disorder, or an anxiety disorder, or depression, and continuing to wear “armour” and go into daily battle.

I don’t yet know how successful the photographs will be at saying what I would I like, but so far I am very optimistic. It’s really important to me that they aren’t what Google image search might lead you to expect. I want them to say something about the diversity of experiences that my diagnosis can bring; to touch on the way that we use our “battle armour” both to keep our private selves hidden; and to be led by my internal world, instead of making me a medical or photographic “subject”.

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About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/ Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BipolarBlogger
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7 Responses to No dressing gowns allowed! Photographing mental distress

  1. We forget that people suffering from illnesses are individuals, the same as anyone else. Especially when it comes to mental illness. I guess clipart and stock images just deal with stereotypes anyway, look at office worker. Not many of us look like that! Mental illness is failure, life stops. Apparently. Oh and I have Depression but don’t own a dressing gown. Am I doing something wrong?! 😉

  2. Purple People Eater says:

    Hello! I’m also taking part in Helen’s project, can I email you?

  3. This project sounds so, so exciting! I really like your ideas. I would love to do something like this and can’t wait to see the photographs!!

  4. sionnanmaree says:

    Brilliant post and I’d be interested to see the images when they’re done.

  5. Pingback: What does mental illness look like? The head clutcher | Sectioned

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