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Experiences of acute mental illness: 'I just wasn’t there'

Photovoice was developed by two researchers in the 1990s as a tool for giving voice to groups who have been traditionally marginalised, writes Dr Maria Quinlan.

Dr Maria Quinlan Sociologist

IT’S AN OLD cliché, but a picture really can paint a thousand words. As the American photojournalist Aaron Huey says, photography has the power to undo our assumptions about the world, and this is what the See Change Look Beyond research and associated photography exhibition seeks to do – to challenge our preconceived ideas about mental health and illness.

As a sociologist I’m interested in exploring how people experience the world around them. Asking individuals to share their stories can unlock a deep and nuanced understanding of the particular phenomena which we’re looking to explore.

For this project the topic under study is mental health, what it feels like to experience a mental health difficulties and what can help the recovery process. There are many methods used by researchers to gather an individual’s experience, but few get so straight to the heart of a topic as the photovoice.

Giving voice to the marginalised

Photovoice was developed by two researchers in the 1990s as a tool for giving voice to groups who have been traditionally marginalised in society. The method is simple: give people cameras, create a safe space where the participants feel comfortable to openly discuss a topic, and over several weeks ask them to take photos related to a selection of themes that emerge during the discussion.

Each photograph is captioned by the person who took it, and these captions are a vital component of the photovoice method. These are not merely standalone photographs open to interpretation by the viewer, but rather they are a means of communication between photographer and viewer. The photographer explains to the viewer what the photograph represents for them and why they have chosen this image.

Photovoice as a method has its roots in social activism and aims to ultimately promote positive social change. The opportunity to exhibit the photos and their captions is key.
For this project we wanted to start a conversation on the topic of mental health problems, to demystify an often scary and silenced subject. The images and captions in this exhibition are powerful, moving and evocative.

Much of the exhibition depicts viscerally what it feels like to go through a mental health crisis – images of being squashed, wrung-out, and gripped, images of dark rooms and shut doors, and of blurred distorted reality give us an understanding of what it might feel like to live with depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.

Feeling a shell of your former self

A consistent set of themes emerge in how participants describe their experience of acute episodes of mental ill-health. Mental illness exhausts you mentally and physically and isolates you from those around you. It leaves you behind, fatigued, feeling like a shell of your former self. As one participant puts it “I just wasn’t there”.

The images and captions describing what has helped in terms of recovery are uplifting and encouraging in their simplicity – being close to nature, having a beloved pet, reading, walking, connecting with others. Hope of recovery and deep sense resilience is expressed throughout the photographs. As one participant says “there’s always hope. The way is not always clear but there is a way out of despair and loneliness.”

Working with everyone who took part in this project was hugely illuminating and rewarding – they have navigated a road which has presented them with complex challenges and can help us all to understand what that journey like. If there is one word that describes this project for me it is wisdom – the participants are wise sages who have generously shared their journeys with us so that we can better understand our own and those of our loved ones.

Dr Maria Quinlan is the lead researcher on the Look Beyond project. Look Beyond is a participatory photography project conducted by Dr Maria Quinlan (University College Dublin) and Dr Etain Quigley (NUI Maynooth) on behalf of See Change. The project will be launched with an exhibition of selected photographs on Wednesday 25 October at 6.00pm in Smock Alley. For more information and to register to attend please visit seechange.ie/lookbeyond.

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About the author:

Dr Maria Quinlan  / Sociologist

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