Known as the “father of psychiatric photography”, Hugh Welch Diamond took his first picture three months after William Fox Talbot invented the negative-positive process in 1839. Diamond applied his interest to his professional work as resident superintendent of the female department of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum.
He believed portraits of patients could illustrate different types of mental illness and presented a paper to the Royal Society of Medicine in 1856 that set out the three functions of photography in psychiatry. These were to record the various appearances of different psychiatric conditions, to record individual patients and to present patients with an accurate self-image as part of their rehabilitation.
Critics have, however, argued that Diamond’s emphasis on female patients skewed people’s views of gender and mental illness. Despite this, his work provides a powerful record of psychiatry in the Victorian era.
Since Diamond’s time, service users have taken control of the images rather than be the subjects. Mental health charity United Response recently initiated Mental Wealth, a groundbreaking photography project to raise awareness among MPs about the reality of living with mental health problems.
Working alongside photographic agency PhotoVoice, it supported a group of people with enduring mental health needs in photographic workshops where participants developed their own creative project to highlight issues important to them.
Images were displayed at an exhibition at the House of Commons and a reception attended by 30 MPs and peers allowed participants to discuss issues and influence opinion on mental health legislation.
Although the main aim of the project was to raise awareness, it also had enormous therapeutic benefits including increased confidence and self-esteem, prompting one participant to comment: “This is the best thing I have ever done.”
In a fast-moving world, photography can be used to record changes and to alter perceptions.
Castle Arts, a mental health arts charity based at Elephant and Castle, south London, tried to achieve just this as its day centre is in an area undergoing massive regeneration. This inspired Castle Arts members to document the changes. Working with a facilitator, participants learned about technique and composition using 35mm and digital cameras.
The project culminated with a public exhibition at the London College of Communication. One participant highlighted the benefits of displaying the photographs: “The photos we took looked amazing when they were enlarged and shown side by side. There was a feeling that people here can achieve something significant.”
As well as being a photographer, Stephen Burrows cares for someone with severe mental health problems.
A collection of monochrome images by Burrows was used as a backdrop to launch arts charity Mental Fight Club. “Given the choice I always photograph in black and white, and work in what has been referred to as a poetic-documentary style,” he says.
His exhibition, To the Lighthouse (and Back), featured photographs documenting a trip to Lundy Island by Mental Fight Club director Sarah Wheeler as part of her recovery from a bipolar disorder. Stark images of tumultuous seas alongside bleak landscapes provided powerful visual metaphors for the isolation and turbulent thoughts of people with mental health problems.
The exhibition will be on display again at Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight from 29 January to 24 February.
Documentary photographer Nuala Hamilton, who has depression, sees photography as an empowering process. “My first published project was a calendar profiling a community group for people with mental health problems. That taught me how photography can contribute to people’s quality of life in so many ways,” she says. “Focus on someone and you confirm their importance. Involve them in the editing process and they know they’re contributing. Show them things they’ve never noticed before and suddenly the world’s a richer place.”
Hamilton is keen to emphasise the therapeutic potential of photography: “I discovered that looking through the viewfinder gave me a few seconds’ peace from the chaos in my head. Things like reading took too much concentration but a few seconds of looking through the eyepiece was something I could manage. Gradually there was an improvement in my concentration overall. Previously I used to walk with my head down. Now I look up and around – I’m looking for things to photograph.”
In recent years she has worked closely with Creative Routes, a mental health arts charity that describes itself as “run by the mad, for the mad”, documenting their annual madcap event Bonkersfest!. Of an image of hers used to publicise the festival, she says: “I like the daftness of this performer with a plastic sheep. It captures the joy and spirit of the day.”
An individual budgets scheme piloted by Norfolk social services has enabled financial resources to be allocated in an innovative way that allows service users to pursue their interests, including photography.
Martin, one of the scheme’s beneficiaries, has spent his individual budget on photographic items. “I bought a camera, a tripod, some lenses and went on a course. Without the individual budget I wouldn’t have been able to afford that.
“I find photography interesting and therapeutic. I’m interested in different aspects, such as landscapes, portraits and abstract images, and have been using Photoshop [computer software] to manipulate pictures. What I like about photography is that it combines science with art. By changing the shutter speed and exposure, you’re able to ‘paint’ with light.”
Martin describes the benefits of the scheme: “I’m on a photography course at a local college which gives me the challenge I need. I would like to take this to a more professional level. And if I get enough qualifications it would be great to do it as a living.”
Neuroimaging and mental illness
Today’s advances in technology mean that services are realising some of the aims of Hugh Welch Diamond in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses.
Neuroimaging has been used in clinical practice for more than 30 years and, although various techniques exist, most studies involve magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
Current research at the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences in south London, a joint venture between the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London and the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, involves investigations into epilepsy, psychosis, affective disorders as well as normal brain function.
High resolution mapping techniques help examine the basis of symptoms and are leading to more accurate diagnoses and a more logical basis for developing new treatments.
Mark Drinkwater is a community worker and freelance photographer in south London
This article appeared in the 17 January issue under the headline “In their own image”