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Why I hate 'Mental Health' Photography

Right, first things first: I don't hate all mental health photography, but when I describe this to you, you'll go "oh yeah I hate that too". It's a certain type of photography that I think handles the topic very poorly. Whilst there are artists and photographers who have created work discussing mental health who have created absolutely beautiful imagery, like Vincent Van Gough or a photographer that I found recently called Daniel Regan. There's the chance to discuss these issues with a lot of nuance and visual intensity.

There becomes this massive misconception that mental health is bad and that it's only ever bad. So when photographers try to depict it, they use harsh, violent and at often time, triggering visuals. It paints out this idea that because mental health isn't necessarily a healthy thing to have, that you should feel bad about having it by using these photos that are designed to tell you how bad it is. For example, I went onto a website where someone had photographed a project that focused on self harm, which obviously to me, felt very poorly handled. There was a photo of someone pretending to self harm, which for someone who used to self harm, it's not a nice experienced to see it portrayed like that. It makes my arms feel weird, it creates that sinking feeling inside that all of this pain I physically went through gets turned into someone's half arsed uni project. Daniel Regan, who I mentioned earlier, also discussed the topic of self harm and the habit of it. And that is where the clear definitive line is drawn, there's exploitation and then there's understanding. You can understand an issue without exploiting it (if done properly) but if you don't understand the topic that you seem to be so emotionally invested in, then you might as well not even fucking bother in the first place.

Regan's work discusses self harming as a form of habit, which as a person who's been in the same situation, I know how easy it is to get hooked on it. It's a form of release. And that is what I see in his work. There's no antagonising its subjects, its merely painting out his reality and how he has translated this into his images.


That is what 'mental health' photography needs to be, a discussion rather than an outright statement of what mental health is. It's not something to be given clear black and white boundaries. Many people try to do exactly this but in my opinion fail rather spectacularly. They think that they're painting out this blurred lines set of imagery, but they're not. It is simply something that is unknowingly demonising the very people it claims to understand.


That's where I'll leave it for now. When you try to tackle subject matters like this, there needs to that willingness to step back from the harsh and intense visuals that they so often try to portray. I personally don't want to see that. I've seen enough it for one lifetime. I think there's certain parts of it that we need to understand are the larger themes. Depression, anxiety, ED etc. We know how these things operate and as a society I think we're all too familiar with how they are often portrayed in media. I think there needs to be the realisation that these big black holes that we can often feel inside of us, aren't the entirety of us. There's still the rest of you. You're not simply defined by your mental health and I think this genre of photograph needs to do a better job of depicting and realising that.



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