Mark Neville | Battle Against the Stigma

As my project is now taking shape, the portraits begin to take on a life of their own, my experience of making the podcasts working to create a symbiotic relationship with them. However only I have listened to them all. I haven’t just listened to them, I have collaborated in the making of them. In feeling that I am a little light on contextual research due to podcast production. My research brought me to Mark Neville and his project ‘Battle Against Stigma’. Neville states about the project

‘The exhibition and book intend to give some insight into the issue of adjustment disorder and PTSD which he suffered from on his return to the UK’

In 2011 Neville went to Helmand Province to work as a war artist with the British Army and was compelled to produce a book and exhibition as a result of his own experiences of PTSD and readjustment disorder experienced upon his return.

In a video interview Neville talks candidly about the experience in addition to the production of two volumes

‘The first volume is the re-telling, including his photographs, of Neville’s own personal experience when he was sent out to Helmand in 2011 as an official war artist and his troubled return, and the second volume is made-up of the written testimonies about PTSD and adjustment disorder from serving and ex-serving soldiers.’

What I find interesting is the evolving nature of the project. When attending a portfolio review a couple of months ago, I heard Steph Cosgrove comment about a peers work and how she was ‘turning up the volume’ of her work. A comment that has tuck with me and appears relevant to Neville’s work when he included the written testimony in the second volume of his book.

Mark Neville | Battle Against Stigma

A Neville provides further insight when he comments about the dissemination of his book when he states ‘Throughout 2015 Neville distributed these copies free to Defence Mental Health Services, prison libraries, homeless veterans, probation services, and veteran mental health charities.’ And in this comment I feel another critical breakthrough has occurred. My project ‘Seven Miles South’ challenges the theme of mental health and for some time I have been thinking about where to disseminate the work when finished. I have begun to research and contact mental health charities and a local gallery asking about their interest in the project and hoping for some interest. However, I now feel compelled to think differently about dissemination. My attention will now turn to the production of a newspaper which encompasses photographs in addition to transcriptions of the conversations that I’ve had. I can also include contact details of local charities that offer support in the newspaper. Once produced I will have a product that I can send to charities and story editors alike to create interest within the work.

I will discuss this strategy in my next meeting with Laura although I am quite adamant that this is the correct action to take.

Neville, M. 2020.  Mark Neville. Available [online] at http://www.markneville.com/ (Accessed April 19th, 2021).

Shoot 12 | Daffodils Part 2

This shoot was the third occasion where I went for a roam with the intention of looking for daffodils. However, having reflected on my previous work I didn’t really feel moved by the photographs. Using natural daylight and a fast shutter speed to freeze subjects I felt was rather safe, predictable and boring. However, holding on to feedback I previously received in a peer review, I am still holding on to the idea of a floral element potentially working as a metaphor for fragility which I think aligns with the broader theme of male mental health. In carrying out so much research and trying to contextualise my path informed by others I felt in a hole as I could write about a million great photographers without really knowing where to start beyond reading and pulling some semi pertinent quotes in order to vaguely justify my work.

In light of my frustration I will justify this approach by describing my intentions in a more loose form. Looking at my previous portraits, I’ve fallen into a methodology of using on camera flash and using only a 35mm prime lens as a way to control my workflow and develop a reoccurring theme. Over the past few weeks I found myself going back to looking at the work of Todd Hido and Saul Leiter. Both of which share similarities such as excellent use of colour in addition to making images at night encompassing contrast.

As I roamed through the flowers I was quite happy at the contrast within the images, using the flash on its manual setting was delivering a range of outcomes which I felt were less safe and I quite enjoyed looking at them. This was similar to the editing stage where I begun to notice things within the photographs, the unpredictability, colour variation and infinite yet detailed compositions. In order to further the process of experimentation I decided to slow the shutter, using the flash to freeze objects whilst continuing to move the camera. Within my wedding work I would usually do this with a zoom lens. The gallery below is the outcome of my evening of experimentation. The next stage will be to select (if any) relevant work and see how it might work as part of a sequence. The major question I will be interested in over the coming weeks will be to understand if this work has a place within the project.

Mental Health Foundation | Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

From my previous research of the Mental Health Foundation, I managed to identify some key information which will inform my practice of conducting interviews. I decided to further my contextual understanding of the MHF. Upon doing this I identified the Scottish Mental health Arts Festival. The website states…

‘It aims to support the arts, explore how engagement in the arts can help prevent mental ill health, and challenge mental health stigma. Led by the Mental Health Foundation, SMHAF combines high artistic quality with strong grassroots support, community engagement and social activism.’

In response to identifying this avenue I quickly put together an email and PDF of work to hopefully gain some support for my project. However I understand that I am late in submitting my work as the festival starts at the beginning of May.

The festival has a sub theme called ’70 Stories’ which has been curated to coincide with the 70th anniversary of MHF. Having sent an email I don’t expect to be successful in gaining entry however it may be a good opportunity to receive some feedback and identify opportunities in the future.

At this stage of my project I am feeling stronger about submitting work as I now have some of the podcasts in place. This week I shared some of the work with my peers on the course and was met with positive feedback with particular comments about how the photographs make much more sense now that they are accompanied with the audio.

The next task will be to transcribe the audio to see how it fits with the photography, I am in no doubt that this will be a big task and time consuming. Of late, it feels although my project is progressing at a snails pace. Understanding that it is easy to lose motivation at times like these I find that at least having some podcasts to accompany the photographs does represent progress. The benefit of this is that I now have something more than just photos to submit to potential opportunities for dissemination which is heartening.

I have also recently submitted a portfolio to the Open Walls call with the British Photography Journal.

https://www.mhfestival.com/projects/70stories

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health

Artist Submission | Stockport Art Gallery

In the pursuit of an exhibition space I have applied to Stockport Art Gallery to hold a local exhibition. In order to do this I wrote a statement in addition to submitting six images from my project. I volunteered to promote the event myself and emphasised the positive response from the community I’d already received.

Podcast | Irish

Within this podcast ‘Irish’ talks about a lifetime caring for his mother who was mentally ill and piecing his life together after prison. Having his own struggles with depression and self loathing, he is now putting his extraordinary life experience to use by working in the care sector. A moving story about life, resilience and suffering.

Irish

Male Mental Health | Subject Research

Starting research into the broader subject matter of mental health in males feels a bit like trying to jump into a sea of information and knowing where to start is quite difficult although it isn’t hard to find statistics which make rather grim reading.

Within this article published by mentalhealth.org I found some interesting info regarding the possible reasons of male mental illness. And in consuming this info I will hope to offer some personal insight from my own experience and of those I have interviewed as part of my project.

Societal expectations and traditional gender roles

Whilst progressing my work I have certainly noticed that maintaining gender roles has been an important factor and although participants have in the main been very frank and honest in sharing their experiences, I feel that a male discourse is present in both photographic work and in the audio recordings. When collaborating with participants I feel that I have been able to access some emotion, however at the few points a metaphorical mask has been removed I feel the mask is quickly replaced with another mask. Almost a tick box approach as if to say ‘I’ve done the honest bit now’. By no means do I intend to demean this level of honesty, rather an acceptance of the patriarchal view of looking at the world.

Men are less likely to discuss or seek help for their mental health problems

Although probably true, I have spoken to a number of participants who have sought help for their mental health. And from personal experience, one of the main reasons I am probably still here is due to the intervention of a female GP. At my most vulnerable I had a weekly appointment where my GP, although not a specialist was able to provide emotional support on a human level. In maintaining this relationship I felt a she eventually was able to understand my issues and offer critical insight.

Socioeconomic hardship, unemployment

In pursuing this theme I certainly identify with this. Working as a media teacher in the FE sector I have been employed at the same institution for nearly nine years. Around five years ago I experienced a new management structure being implemented and saw many colleagues leave their posts. I’m still not sure why many employees left the college but more importantly in a personal sense. I’m not sure why I haven’t been asked to leave. I understand this may represent a lack of confidence in my own personality and it is possible that I am good at my job. However the feeling of insecurity is something that I have lived with for a long period of time. Sometimes stressful and a source of anxiety which can have a huge impact on myself and my family. At the same time, I feel scared to leave and seek employment elsewhere as I’ve been employed in the same place for so long. A strange conundrum that I haven’t yet solved.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health [Accessed 8th April 2021]

Roland Barthes|Mythologies

It has been really tough to get to this blog of late for a number of reasons. In terms of my project, I recently spoke to Laura about the impact of the work I have been making in a personal sense. When preparing a sequence of images to present at the meeting, I spoke of the feeling of being nauseous and having butterflies in my stomach from seeing the work together. Portraits that probably represent the reasons I chose to do an MA however the powerful emotions I felt weren’t anticipated.

The choice to conduct recorded interviews with the encounters serves to reinforce the personal impact although at present this may not be experienced by audiences as I’ve not presented this part of the project as yet. However the experience of editing listening to the audio after the encounter has been immersive and powerful. Obrist, H (2015: p55) speaks of the process of conducting interviews as ‘somehow bringing him closer to his art’ an idea that certainly aligns with my own experience of the last few weeks in making work. I had also wondered about my approach to making this work, raising questions relating to the equipment. Currently using an iPhone voice recorder application I’ve often thought if I should be formalising this process by using a better recorder or even possibly filming my encounters as a way of archiving or adding value. Obrist, H (2015) advocates an informal approach stating that such scenarios offer a more interesting, in what context he means by this, I am unsure but from my own experience I have found that the use of everyday technology appears less threatening. The iPhone is an object that I would have had in my pocket whether making work or not. And in this I feel that I am able to make encounters less formal, making participants feel more comfortable than if an alien object intruded their space such as a voice recorder.

In terms of the current development of my project the next destination is to explore avenues to open the work further in addition to pursuing the portrait and interview approach. As stated earlier the impact of hearing personal stories about suicide attempts and severe mental health issues, stories about people I know that I had no idea about. Served to reinforce the superficial nature of surface depth, this led to pontificating the idea of surface depth, and it is in this consideration which increasingly leads to the subject of gender and more importantly the masculinities that I might be challenging with some success. Having been encouraged to explore this avenue in a portfolio review with Clare Bottomley, Butler (1990) suggests:

‘when we say that gender is performed, we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role; we’re acting in some way…. To say that gender is performative is a little different… For something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman… we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time’.

Thinking about the role that interviewees have taken when collaborating, encounters are usually met with suspicion and intrigue. When I explain my intention, the suspicion lessens. As conversations unfold, I am becoming increasingly aware that male participants become increasingly confident in explaining their thoughts, experiences and emotions and in doing this I feel that participants voluntarily lead in the dismantling some of the performative tropes highlighted by Butler. The way people speak about their experiences, talk about their vulnerabilities and as an interviewer, I sense the lessening of the performative element. In doing this, I agree with Butlers conclusion to some extent when she argues that gender is a ‘phenomenon that is produced and reproduced all the time.’ In the context of my project I feel that the idea of ‘production, and reproduction’ may reach beyond masculinities and be applicable within the context of social position, class and ethnicity.

Moving back towards the mechanics of my work, one of the overarching quandaries I have been in pursuit of, is the relationship between the photographic, and the poetic. As a starting point for reflecting on such ideas Soth in Franklin (2016: pp 167) suggests

“I see poetry as the medium most similar to photography… Or at least the photography I pursue. Like poetry, photography, is rarely successful with narrative. What is essential is the ‘voice’ (or eye) and the way this voice pieces together fragments to make something tenuously whole and beautiful” 

Although Soth’s ideas are helpful, I still struggle to see beyond this statement and decipher between narrative and poetry. Aware of Barthes ideas about connotation and the suggestion of meaning as a microcosm in a photograph. Now considering ideas on a much broader level through the bigger form of a monograph, and the thought of what my FMP might look like when it’s finished. My recent reading has been directed towards Barthes (1958) book ‘Mythologies’. In a sense I feel frustrated that I hadn’t discovered this book earlier but at the same time I’m happy that at this point in my creative education, I am probably mature enough to read such a book and feel ideally placed to be able to take maximum meaning from the text. My initial assessment leads to the enjoyment of reading but on a more intellectual level, I think the book is a successful examination of symbolism and the explanation of the potential of an object or practice to be representative of something else in relation to social activity and value. Upon reading his essay ‘Steak and Chips’ I was able to decode the idea of the meal as a metaphor of nationalism, masculinity, loyalty and status. In the many relevant passages I am most drawn:

Steak is adorned with a supplementary virtue of elegance, for among the apparent complexity of exotic cooking, it is a food which unites, one feels succulence and simplicity. Being part of a nation, it follows the index of patriotic values: it helps them rise in wartime, it is the very flesh of the French soldier, the inalienable property which cannot go over to the enemy except by treason’.

Without unpicking the metaphorical value of this statement I would rather apply the idea of objects taking on meaning beyond their own vernacular to my own project with the inclusion of daffodils within my own work. In an aesthetic sense, my work has been described as dark and cinematic. The use of flash to create contrast which adds to this idea in addition to a sense of continuity. However I feel that my work is slightly one dimensional in terms of its masculine vernacular. The presence of objects such as bottles of beer, trainers and tracksuits add to appearances which may have further connotations of class and status amongst working class males, possible low education and modest means. However, in reducing people to few recognisable tropes such as these I am failing to account for the emotional intelligence I have encountered in the collaboration in the form of interviews.

Burr (2003) comments regarding discourses ‘It refers to a particular picture that is painted of an event, person or class of persons, a particular way of representing it in a certain light. If we accept the view… That a multitude of alternative versions of events are potentially available through language, this means that, surrounding any one object, event, person etc. There may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the object in question, a different way of representing it to the world’. 

Both Burr and Barthes support the idea of a multitude of discourses, representations and meanings within a text and in relation to my context. The inclusion of floral objects assists in the construction of meanings of fragility, combined with the typically male environment, I am keen to continue to develop the sense of humility and vulnerability within my work. I am aware that in a theoretical sense this seems a comprehensible direction however I’m not currently happy with the methodology of this work. At present I have been photographing flowers in their natural environment, looking for the floral in the urban landscape but a future direction may rely on the further construction of work in order to turn up the volume of my work.

Barthes, R. (1958) Mythologies. Vantage, London

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon: Routledge.

Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism, Second Edition. Routledge, London.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse, Phaidon, New York.

Obrist, H (2015) Ways of Curating Hans Ulrich Obrist. Penguin, London