Going Deeper – March 2015

kasmcropMonday 2 March, Centre 1: I arrived early as I had arranged to meet with Jake, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then I discovered that he had gone to the Hospital for Neurology for some more tests. When I went into the day room Pete was back and said he had come in to see me. He said he felt something was missing and asked me to copy his photos onto a memory stick for him. He also took his collage home. Then I saw Alex and he said he couldn’t stay long because he had to go to sort out his housing benefit, but he had taken some photos. Whilst I was waiting for him one of the OTs came in with a young woman who she said might want to join the group, but was very shy and nervous. I suggested she came in straight away to see me before the group started. She had had a very hard time and I couldn’t help feeling sad and angry on her behalf. Its not surprising that she was a bit tearful. I gave her a pile of magazines to look through to start to find images that would tell her story whilst I went to check whether other people were coming to join the group. When I got back she was speaking on her mobile. The others started to arrive and she withdrew into herself, saying that she needed to go to a doctors appointment, so I took her back to the office.

Alex came to show me the photos he had taken on his phone. They were a bit random. Each week he has trouble remembering what I am asking him to do and why. Then he got his collage out and talked me through the different elements. He said that the voices he heard were like being in an auditorium or at a football match in the middle of a noisy crowd, but that these had subsided in the last three weeks. Then six new people arrived. I spread out my View From Inside photos on the table for them to look at. Two of them started discussing the photos and analysing them carefully. One man, Salim, was concerned that a lot of elements in the images were, as he put it “inappropriate”. I explained that these were the phenomena that people described to me, and he seemed to understand. Then I asked people to look through magazines for images that reflected what had been going on for them. Salim was very philosophical in his approach. He found an image of two symmetrical sets of car tracks going in different directions, and interpreted that as saying that whichever way you go in life you end up in the same place eventually. I asked him if he had found anything that related more directly to his personal experience and he showed me a picture of a climber half way up a crevasse between two rock faces.

Mansur cut out a Christmas tree and when I asked him why he said that that he had spent long periods on the street homeless and the worst time was Christmas. His name is Muslim, so I asked him what Christmas means to him, and he said its about families and being together. I didn’t ask him any more. Valerie was at the end of the tables and I didn’t say too much to her, but at the end she wanted to carry on, so I said she could stay for another ten to fifteen minutes. The others all left and she started to talk about herself, then she took her folder home to carry on with the collage.

The further I go with this project the more I realise that a lot of mental health issues are caused by neglect, abuse, bad relationships and so on, mainly in childhood. Why are the people who experience them treated as though they are to blame,  monstrous … etc? Surely this is just a normal human reaction to too much stress/lack of care/being outcast.

Thursday 5th March, Centre 2: There were a lot of new people today, but neither Andrea or Cathy were there. Cathy was sick and had to stay at home, and Andrea is in hospital because she took an overdose last night. She was doing so well last week. Her keyworker told me that when she drinks she loses track and overdoses quite often. That news makes me feel quite powerless. I confirmed with the manager that Jane has been discharged, and asked if she had left my camera. It was in a jiffy bag with “Alexa’s private personal camera” written on it and a piece of paper inside with her contact details on it, but I know that I can’t contact her. Neil came in especially for the art project. He is getting close to finishing a second collage. He seems quite pleased with it. I decided it might be time to try to talk to him about it, but his key worker was too busy, so we agreed to do it next week.

After I had started the introduction for the new people a young woman came in rather nervously asking if she could join us. I said ‘yes, come in, I can see you’re a photographer’. She was a little surprised, and asked how I knew – I said you have a tripod in your bag. Actually it turned out to be an umbrella, but she is studying art. She made two elegant and very carefully executed collages in an hour.

Brenda, the lady who is a professional artist, came to observe the group for a while, but she’s still very wary and when she left she said that if she made a collage it would be just decorative, without any content. Today I thought about how everyone has so many facets to them… like those virtual pages that appear in Safari on the iphone stacked up on top of one another, a different one coming to the fore as you flick your thumb.

When I got home I looked at the photos on the camera that Jane had left for me. She has taken inspiration from Elina Brotherus’ self portraits in the mirror and also some of the interiors by Nigel Shafran that I showed in the group. Even though she has signed a consent form, I don’t feel I can do anything with these photos without discussing it with her first. They are very personal and quite haunting.

Monday 9th March, Centre 1: I arrived a bit early in case the young woman I had seen last week was there and wanted to see me 1-1 again, but her key worker said she hadn’t been back since last Monday. As soon as I went into reception one of the staff made a point of telling me that Jake had found the composite image of lions that I made for him disturbing. I was pretty sure that J had processed that now, but went to find him anyway to make sure. He was fine, and said that now he was not seeing lions so much, but rather eyes. He feels that windows are looking at him, but this is not as troublesome as the lions. He had printed out a lot of small pictures of lion heads and was sticking them onto one of the backgrounds of rugged looking rocks that he had cut out previously to make his first collage.

Alex had lots of photos on his phone to show me. Most of them seemed quite random, but then he said “I like moss on old stones – the way its just clinging on to life”, which made me think there might be more meaning to his photos than he is letting on. Today was a busy day, with seven or eight people in the group. I met a new man called Patrick in the corridor, who said he would like to join us. When I showed him my previous work he said he identified with the stones hanging up in the portrait of Lucinda – something about them being heavy and unstable, and also the newspaper across the window in Amanda’s portrait. Mansur was there today, but he said he was tired and kept slipping down in his chair half under the table. He stayed until the end working on his collage, but he seemed a bit down this week and wasn’t as enthusiastic as last week. I later learned he’s back on drugs again. Valerie looked quite nervous at the start of the session and said she wouldn’t stay long, but ended up staying until the end, to talk me through her collages.

This week I had to cancel the workshop at Centre 2 because I was away setting up an exhibition.

Monday 16th March, Centre 1: When I arrived Marco was outside sitting in his wheelchair with some big cuts on his face. I asked him what had happened and he said something like “madness”. He seemed very different to his usually bright and breezy self. I asked if he was coming in and he said not this week. Later one of the staff told me that this weekend was the anniversary of the day that he tried to jump off a tall building in a suicide attempt. He had gone back to the place where it happened and freaked out.  In the day room there were quite a few new people – two women who said they wanted to come to the group next week, and a couple of men who said they would come this week.

When I went into the art room to prepare Patrick was already sitting there. He said that he had been discharged from from the Crisis House. I asked him if he had any art background as he seems so sensitive and so knowledgeable. He said ‘not visual art’, so I pushed him a bit further and he said that he wrote. He got on with finding cuttings for his collage – its difficult to see what he is doing as he keeps everything well hidden, but there seems to be a lot of blue in his folder. The folders are a real success and in the end it is good that I got A3 ones. I said to P that I would like to give him a camera next week and he seemed pleased. Jake was  in the day room when I went in to look for people and he greeted me warmly and confidently. He had photocopied his lion collage from last week, and I must admit it looks good. He had also printed out lots of pictures of eyes that he had found online. When I asked if he had taken any photos in the week, he said he had one that he had taken whilst out and about with the walking group. Before showing it to me he said that he had been very anxious when he took it, so he didn’t know what he would feel like when he saw it.

Another new guy, Adrian from the crisis house was at a computer in the day room with earphones on when I was going around before the group so I nearly didn’t talk to him, but then I did and he came along. He had a sketchbook containing plans for a graphic novel with him. He said that he had done it in prison because he was bored. He was looking for encouragement with this, and when I mentioned metaphor he seemed pleased. He said he had got mixed up in drug culture following a lot of bereavements when he didn’t know who to turn to. I showed Alex the prints I had made of his photos, and asked him to think about how they would go together. He started to make a collage with them, overlapping them. When I asked why he said that it was a way of pushing some of them to the back – into the past.

Only half way through the month and so many words! 

Thursday 19th March, Centre 2: When I arrived one of the nurses welcomed me back after my week away. She was keen to tell me about a new patient, who didn’t in the end attend. Its interesting that staff are seeing me as a useful resource now, but a bit frustrating that I still can’t do 1-1s without keyworkers present. I started looking for people for the group. I felt a bit sad and frustrated that some people I was getting to know were not there this week. Several of them had been discharged. One was Andrea, who had left her camera for me with a few out of focus photos and short video clips, mostly taken around the Recovery Centre, which sadly I will have to delete. Her key worker told me she didn’t want to leave her collage, partly because it wasn’t finished and she didn’t feel it was worth anything. I was annoyed with myself that I didn’t photograph her collage in progress.

Neil finished his second collage today. We had a 1-1 meeting with his key worker present and he talked briefly about his circumstances. He is preparing for discharge soon. When I was asking around in the dayroom if people were coming Brenda was there making excuses again, but then she started hovering around and saying she might come. After much deliberation she finally sat down at the table and started to work on a collage.

Today was Raymond’s first day at the centre. He came in to the group a little late and was initially very quiet, then he started tearing out pictures of darkness and looking for dark tunnels. Other people suggested possible pictures, but none were dark enough for him, so he did a websearch and printed out a picture of a tunnel, onto which he started sticking some of the torn out pieces. I asked him if he wanted scissors and he said ‘no’. Another new guy, Lee, joined the group. When I said that photography was part of the project he told me that he’s a semi-professional photographer. He showed me his website, which is impressive.

I felt quite upbeat during the group today, but afterwards I was kind of empty and a bit depressed, I don’t know why.

Monday 23rd March, Centre 1: The manager had emailed to let me know that there wouldn’t be many people around today as there was a meeting about mental health somewhere that many were attending. When I arrived at I went into reception to ask if there was anything I should know about anyone, and staff told me about young woman who they say is manipulative and “splits”, meaning that she says one thing to one person and another to another to create a rift.

I looked up splitting when I got home: it was originally a psychoanalytical concept “first described by Freud in his work on fetishes and pathological grief, where he referred to a mental process by which two separate and contradictory versions of reality could co-exist”  It is associated with Borderline Personality Disorder, where someone may view one person as always “good” and another as always “bad.”

By the time I left the office the Mental Health matters meeting had finished early and there was no one around. I sat in reception for a while and was just thinking about cancelling the group for today when a young woman with blue hair appeared at the main door. She had come from the crisis house and for a while she was the only one in the ‘group’. I gave her my general project introduction and showed her my previous series of photo portraits. She said she identified with the one of Theresa, which she read as showing “demons coming at you”. She said that she was very bored at in the crisis house, where she feels she doesn’t have anyone to talk to. She seems edgy and a bit suspicious of everything. As well as cutting out images, she collected words like ‘raped’ and something to do with violence. Then Patrick arrived, apologizing for being slightly late. He  is now a day-patient, which he is finding a bit difficult because he is anxious about being at home with too much time to think. I asked, ‘are you not able to work at all?’ and he told me that he has terminal cancer. I found it quite difficult this week to be sufficiently busy in a room with just two people who are really struggling, so I spent some time flicking through the magazines. I asked Patrick if he would like to take a camera home, and he said ‘yes’.

Thursday March 26th, Centre 2 Brenda arrived about half an hour after the start of the group, and again needed some encouragement to stay. She was not in good spirits as she is anxious about having been given a discharge date. I suggested she makes another collage, which she started trying to do, but then said she couldn’t think properly. So I said ‘why don’t you try to do something without thinking too much?’, and she created a rather chaotic image, which seemed to make her feel a bit happier. Margaret was in the dayroom when I arrived, sitting in the corner looking quite withdrawn. I asked if she was coming to the Art Project and she nodded. She was generally very quiet this week and I felt it was best not to try to make her interact too much. She left the room for some time part way through the session, I think she had a meeting with the doctors. When she returned she was a bit distressed because one of the words she had cut out had got lost, but in the end she found it and everything was fine. Anya was also in the dayroom when I arrived, with her hair severely scraped back so I didn’t recognise her at first. She seemed on quite good form and was a lot more responsive and open than the last time I had seen her. She finished her collage today. She started by lining up all the pieces that she had cut out in a straight row. I suggested she re-organise them a bit and maybe add something else that would reinforce the suggestion of fear. She cut out the face of a gorilla, which she said was scary, and stuck that on as well. It definitely improved the composition.

A little while after the group had started one of the staff brought an older man in. He came with a resistant and defiant attitude. At first it seemed that he was not going to do anything, as he was very negative about all the images I was showing him in my introduction. But then he started cutting out pictures from magazines very rapidly and collected them all together, and then created a large collage in one session. He wanted to take it home with him, which he did. He was very insistent on me finding him a rubber band, but I couldn’t find one anywhere, so I rolled his collage in a piece of yellow tissue paper instead. I was quite sad he didn’t leave it for me. I just managed to take a snap on my phone, but I doubt that I’ll be able to get him to bring the collage in for me to photograph properly.

Monday 30th March, Centre 1: In the morning the secretary called me to say that Valerie had broken her foot and would not be able to come to see me today. Then she called again to say that V had come anyway as there had been some confusion with communication. I rushed there as quickly as I could. When I arrived I saw Alex squatting on the pavement outside the gates smoking. I asked if I would see him later and he said ‘yes’. Valerie was in the dayroom hopping around on crutches. She showed me a number of photographs she had taken and we talked through how we might put some together to show. We agreed on a triptych, and possibly some others. There are many personal narratives behind each photo, and I tried to explain that these needed to be evident for other people visually without being too illustrative. Just as we were finishing Patrick arrived, looking a lot better than he had last week. He is still very pale from the cancer drugs, but he seemed more animated than I had seen him previously. He got out his folder of pieces for the collage and announced that today he was ready to stick things down. He also said that he had taken some photos in the week, and returned the camera. I had just sat down to start talking with him when Alex arrived. Valerie was also still in the room, but preparing to leave. Alex said that he had some more photos on his phone to show me. Then just as I was settling him in, Michele came in. I asked her if she could remember what I had asked her to do last time she was in the group, and with a bit of prompting she recalled that I was asking people to make collages about their experiences. But she said that she couldn’t do that and she would make a collage about anything she felt like. In the end I just said ‘OK”, and she set to work. Alex asked if he could start a third collage and contented to cut out large, untidy images and place them on the paper quite chaotically. When I asked him to explain what some of them were, he said that it was about people again. I asked why people, and he said he didn’t know, then he remembered that it was because of the voices. He had also cut out some microscopic tree like image and when I asked him why, he said: “the context for the voices seems quite watery. There are many voices around the one person. Sometimes I feel like I’m being eaten by the voices. There is a self involved and they keep attacking my self. The self retreats. It feels like a childlike inner being coming in and out of yourself.”

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Alexa Wright

Alexa Wright works with photography, video, sound and interactive digital media. Her practice often exists at the intersection of art and medical science. Alexa’s work has been shown widely, both nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include: 'Slippage, The Unstable Nature of Difference', Chester University Gallery (2015); 'Crafting Anatomies', Bonington Gallery, Nottingham (2015); 'Hybrid Bodies', PHI Centre, Montreal (2014); 'Archisle Photography Open', Jersey Arts Centre, St Helier, Jersey (2013); (honorable mention); 'Portas Abertas', Fórum Eugénio de Almeida, Évora, Portugal (2013); 'Digital Aesthetic 3', Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston (2012); 'Born in 1987: the Animated Gif', Photographer’s Gallery, London (2012). Alexa is Reader in Photography and Visual Culture at the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her single-authored book, ‘Monstrosity the human monster in visual culture’ was published by IB Tauris in June 2013. Funded by the Arts Council, Alexa is currently artist in residence at two Mental Health Recovery Centres in North London, UK.