Representing mental illness

Note: if you don’t want to get personal, just don’t read this.

Mental health issues are always difficult to approach, be it in sociological or artistic terms. Both as a student and as a teacher, not a year goes by without crossing paths with photographic narratives that aim at questioning the stigma befalling the mental health issues. It’s true, they usually fail at it. Usually a student claims to know about depression and wants to represent it or someone in the family has a mental illness and they want to document its impact on their relationships. Why do they usually fail? Although I don’t have an answer for it, I think there’s always some truth in such failures. Maybe the problem has to do with representational schemes and how our artistic immaturity sometimes leads us to approach photography as if it were an illustration device. But maybe the core of the problem lies somewhere else: in our general disregard for things we cannot see?

Ten years ago I spent a month in a mental hospital. Every time I say that out loud one of two things happen: either a silence follows or “the issue” is avoid. As I see it, these are good indications of how we, as a society, keep ignoring our mental struggles. Let’s face it: there’s a huge stigma around it because mental illness (for the majority of people) equals weakness. In that sense, men have it even worse, because they used to be seen as the providers. It’s the same with alcoholism: most people address it as a failure, a weakness, not as a disease (I remember a particular debate in Britain that got a lot of attention back in 2012; there’s also this brilliant post by Pete Brook).

People who claim to have “a scientific mind” tend to be the first to cast unfortunate judgments upon those who suffer from such problems. Yes, I know this too well. Families also struggle with everything, being that this “everything” can be summed up in the way they deny language altogether: not saying the name of the illness; not saying words like “mental hospital”, etc, etc. The stigma also underestimates the impact of mental illnesses, but what it is most likely to do is ignore the problem all together. It’s as if the suffering, the anguish, the hallucinations, etc., weren’t proof enough of the existence of something like an illness. It’s as if people were expecting to see physical traces of it: some blood, some swelling, some skirmishes, who knows? For instances, when I entered the hospital I was already incontinent, had lost too much weight and had mobility problems. Do they count as symptoms? They do, of course, but still “the scientific minds” like to relate them to specific deficits (vitamins, for example), managing to ignore the core of the problem, once again.

Being that I was studying photography at the time, over the years that followed that summer I often thought about how to represent that experience, meaning: how to represent the profound struggle with myself and others that had led me to that hospital. I know now I was asking the wrong question, for that struggle is not representable and what can be transferred to the aesthetic dimension is something of a different order; it is transient, abstract, it’s about shape and color, not semiotic language.

David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.
© David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.

For example, we could consider the above photograph by David Nebreda (yes, I know, him again) as an illustration of how mental illness impacts the human body and how one could represent that. I know a lot of people already think Nebreda’s work is about his schizophrenia, but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not about HIS mental illness, HIS schizophrenia, but about something that is universally understood as suffering, particularly about the space between disappearance and presence, about the struggle to exist, in all its plenitude: exist! It is about vitality, originality, presence, dynamics. As I see it, what makes his way of doing authentic is its truth, and this truth (of an ethical nature) is present as an aesthetic quality. 

© Sofia Silva, 'Three Entrances', from the project 'The Orchestra', 2011
© Sofia Silva, Three Entrances, from the project The Orchestra, 2011.

When I was asking the wrong question I did the photograph above. Although I see some truth in it, I recognize it fails as an expression of the state of transformation I was trying to allude to. I think for an artist (or an image-maker) finding a language of his/her own is the most difficult of things. And that language, that style, that expression needs only follow one star: truth. I’m not talking about “being true to oneself” or about “truthfulness” in a pure ethical way but, instead, truth as an aesthetic dimension. I guess that sums up my definition of authenticity: truth as as aesthetic quality…

2 thoughts on “Representing mental illness

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