Picturing mental health

Between illusion and reality...is where I stand, by Marwah Al-Mugait Between illusion and reality...is where I stand, by Marwah Al-Mugait

Photographic courses often surprise those who set out on the journey into further education and this year I have been following the work of Marwah Al-Mugait and Michael McGuinness, two students on the MA Photojournalism course at the University of Westminster.

Nearly a year on from the first time we met they have now completed their course and their final project is on show at Ambika P3 Gallery along with those of their peers. The show is entitled Here and There, and comprises a wide variety of work and styles, but all approach their subjects with inquisitive eyes and an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the photographic medium.

Last week I caught up with Marwah and Michael at our new offices in Broadcasting House to see their work and find out how the course has shaped their outlook.

Both students decided to tackle mental health issues for their final project, a subject notoriously difficult to photograph without resorting to cliche and intrusion. Yet both have steered clear of these pitfalls and come to see that as Marwah states, "It is not only the photograph but the story behind it that makes it beautiful." And I'd add, it is the story that gives it purpose and value.

So let's take a look at their work.

Marwah Al-Mugait

I can never tell, who am I? I can never tell, who am I?
Silent pain overpowers all of the world's noise Silent pain overpowers all of the world's noise
A double life A double life
In my shell I escape and the rest of the world doesn't matter In my shell I escape and the rest of the world doesn't matter
Unveiling my sorrows Unveiling my sorrows
It seems as if all the past is blurred in black and white It seems as if all the past is blurred in black and white
Levitation, where I feel no gravity...a moment that I wish would never end Levitation, where I feel no gravity...a moment that I wish would never end

Marwah undertook to examine mental health issues in her home town of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. No mean task, indeed it is not a subject that attracts many photographers, if any.

Her project focuses on Mona, who Marwah says, "bravely opened all the locked doors into her private life and revealed 27 years of suffering from bipolar disorder."

Throughout the course Marwah's work has developed from purely aesthetic images to those that have power and speak to the viewer. Yet she has retained an eye for visual beauty and ensured her pictures are compelling and draw the reader to the story itself.

Course leader Max Houghton agrees, saying, "Marwah has remained true to her aesthetics, we haven't moulded her but allowed her to unfold herself, rather than saying this is Western photojournalism and this is what you do."

This can be seen in her latest work. "As in any other country there is a growth in bipolar disorder in Saudi Arabia and I tried to go towards less shocking, less direct images," Marwah recalls.

Start Quote

But through these moving and powerful images, we can see the subject grapple with the inner demons in her private home and in her day-to-day life… and through the clever use of camera, lens and lighting, we are invited to the subject's inner reality. The content also exhibits and reflects an approach by the photographer that is without denial, without avoidance and without distortion.”

End Quote Nahla Al-Ageli An Existential Encounter

The project took time to come together and it was only after much searching and heading down a few dead ends that Marwah found Mona, as many of those she approached did not want to talk about their illness as it may jeopardise their position in society.

"Through this process I went to places I have never been nor expected go," Marwah says. "A psychiatry ward in a military hospital was shocking to witness even without photographing."

Marwah's work is an intimate piece and the title, Mood Diary, reflects that well. It is not as such a piece of documentary photography, yet through it we can learn much and perhaps it will encourage further research and understanding.

"My aim was to symbolise what is going on in the mind of patient during the depression and mania," Marwah tells me. "John Darwell's A Black Dog Came Calling, which describes an episode of depression, was one of my inspirations. Whilst visiting Mona I didn't photograph directly, it was about knowing her and gaining her trust." It was this that provides the series with a feeling of being a collaborative piece of work.

"You have to research deeply before you pick up your camera. I used to grab my camera and shoot, now I plan and research first, the last thing is taking the pictures," Marwah says. It is that research and understanding of subject that helps build confidence in having the right to actually enter someone else's life with your camera. Without that you are little more than an intruder.

"You do feel extremely responsible," Marwah says. "How to present the story is delicate and in this case Mona did not want to be photographed directly, yet this is her first step to declare her mental problem."

"I think photojournalism can be criticised for looking at the miserable side of life and depressing issues," Max adds. "But I don't think that is the right thing to criticise. I think that is to be praised and celebrated as photography can be a tool to discover and an extra sensory experience. It is more than visual and allows in other emotions, and in the right hands can tell stories differently." And Marwah's work fits neatly into this sphere.

Michael McGuinness

Photograph taken at the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust by Michael McGuinness

Turning to Michael's work on mental health we get a very different approach as he has been documenting the role of the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust (BSMHFT).

The project is entitled Monday comes very quickly - Photographing the Unseeable, and is presented in the form of a newspaper, something that seems to be very popular at present.

The very fact that Michael has pulled a piece of work together on this scale is to be applauded. It is a massive undertaking and one that Michael threw himself into with a passion, spending many weeks working with the Trust.

The first weeks passed without a frame being shot as Michael was shown around the unit, negotiated access and met both staff and users of the service.

Having spent so many weeks away from the course in London Michael found he had an interesting session with his lecturer. "I got into some trouble with Ben Edwards (one of the tutors), who asked what I was doing? Do I not need the course's experience he asked me? But logistically I couldn't do it as I had to spend six weeks not taking pictures and just being shown around. At the first tutorial, I had 36 images."

Space between the football pitch and Holymoor Tower by Michael McGuinness

This was something Michael had to go through and the rewards were to come, with access to an establishment and environment that requires the utmost care to work in. Sue Turner, the Chief executive of BSMHFT notes how Michael has, "taken on the challenge to capture what life is like for staff and service users across our trust… Michael was given unprecedented access to many of our trust's sites to ensure he was able to illustrate the challenges and triumphs our staff and service users experience every day - and to help tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues."

Start Quote

One in four people will experience some sort of mental health issue during their lifetime, but there's no way of spotting who that one in four is. Their arm is not in a sling and they probably don't use crutches or a wheelchair to get around, and as such not only can their condition be invisible but also their treatment.”

End Quote Sue Turner Chief executive of BSMHFT

Having been granted access Michael immersed himself in the trust's work and the subject of mental health. "The title of the work Monday comes very quickly derives from and idea that we all face similar challenges in life," Michael says. "Monday remains a fixed entity; it is a day when we are supposed to be alert, engaged and ready to face the world. However, many people who suffer from mental health issues may not feel this way as they may feel excluded in terms of engaging with the regular rhythms, demands or expectations of daily life."

Michael's project also shows how the parts make a whole. "It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in which each component helps to articulate complex feelings and responses," he adds.

The photographs are often all in focus, offering equal weight to the components within the frame - saying that everything is important to the whole picture. Take away one part and you can't decode the image. It's good to see, especially when you consider that today we are used to seeing frames where there is only one point of interest, offering instant appeal, but little lasting value.

For me, the slightly muted pictures in the newspaper reflect the subject matter well. Though the original prints on show are in glorious deep colours, this offers a feeling of distance and a veil that surrounds the pictures, something that binds the subject matter to the images. Within the newspaper a few pictures are missing as they were withdrawn from public versions for privacy reasons though they were included in the piece submitted for marking.

There's a policy to use alumni to help influence and mentor those on the course and Michael worked with Daniel Lane on the design of the magazine. Daniel completed the part time MA Photojournalism a few years ago having created a multimedia project about the experience of having bipolar disorder, so was able to connect well with this piece.

Yes! This is my bedroom by Michael McGuinness

"I'm proud of being able to make something that is connected to life and not just a book on a shelf. It has a purpose," Michael says. Indeed it does as the work is to go on show in Birmingham and the newspaper made available.

It been a big learning curve about the importance of the business and legal side of working as a photographer, from privacy concerns, to model and location releases to name a few.

On a different level the work also has a personal edge as Michael explored issues within his family history, saying that the process of writing was tough and emotive. I'm not really sure Michael knew how much he had taken on at the start of this, but he is right to be proud for producing such a comprehensive and engaging piece of work more or less single handed.

Combination photograph by Michael McGuinness

You can view work from Here and There, the final show by photographers on the MA Photojournlism at the University of Westminster here, and the work can be seen at at Ambika, P3, 35 Marylebone Road, NW1 5LS until 16 September.

Update 8:15, 12 September: At last night's private view I'm pleased to say that Marwah was awarded the Metro Imaging one year mentor prize which will help her continue her work and provide invaluable support.

Alongside Marwah and Michael's work there is plenty to admire, particularly Will Berridge's pictures of copper mining in Armenia and Kasia Ciechanowska's series of augmented landscapes is very engaging indeed.

Previous posts looking at Marwah and Michael's work:

Two students seeking an MA

Two students seeking an MA: Part II

Twelve weeks to produce a magazine

You can see more of Michael's work on his website.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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Photographer Nina Sologubenko studies the backs of competitors before they plunge into Tooting Bec Lido.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    To compare and contrast, see these photos depicting mental health issues in Ghana taken by a friend of mine - very sobering!


  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Any exploration of mental illness is to be welcomed - it is hard for those suffering to express themselves and this must only increase their sense of social isolation. My family has been affected by bipolar disorder; a book I can recommend is Locked In Looking Out by Mhairi Taylor, written by a women who has suffered mental illness all her life. It has really helped me to understand the condition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    A very interesting recent discussion around mental health and the community can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/02/rd-laing-mental-health-sanity

    This also stemmed from a photography project - and imho the pictures here too are incredibly strong and well worth a look: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/sep/02/residents-kingsley-hall-rd-laing

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What's that: hypoxanthine quenoil etc Never heard about it. I know this about Van Gogh: he had red hair and a beard, came from a religious background, worked in a gallery in The Hague for some time, and...he had a hard time using peinture as a means of self-expression, which was not so common those days as it is now. But photographs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The last picture by Michael looks like the person is experiencing a sense of depersonalisation,maybe a seasonal affective disorder,but certainly not a split personality,which I dont think is the correct terminology now a days.He may be even experiencing a non convulsive temporal lobe epilepsy or a migraine aura.
    with an aura

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    healthy and independent mental patients would not mind to reveal their identity and pictures.They can become role models also to motivate the patients and their family members,to get psychiatric consultations regularly so as to remain in remission.Why cant Bruce wills or Crowe become your subjects for photo journalism?They have lived through the characters of mental patients.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Unless these photographs are seen by the people,it would turn out to be a sheer waste of time and talent.Will these photographs find a place in the OPD waiting lounge's and in public places.Its in such places that these photographs is going to have an impact, to sensitise the public and the Mental health delivery system.Except for the last photo, the other three were lack-lustre.It did not convey

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It seems to be an interesting course,photojournalism.I have seen movies like,Mercury rising,A beautiful mind,The Rain man;They have left a strong
    impression upon me.Also the paintings by Van Gogh who sufferred from
    Hypoxanthine guanyl phosphoribosyltransferase deficiency.His paintings directly convey the sombre and depressed mood through
    the shades he has used.Nothing bright.Especially MOONLIGHT

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    1. elliehallmark
    'Labelling' is often the difference between life and death. Giving a name to the problem thats been plaguing you your whole life gives you something to beat,something to fight against, knowledge that there are ways to cope. Without 'labelling', no one can get th help they need. People in society won't take mental problems seriously without a label, otherwise. Sad, but true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    "I think that a lot of people who suffer mental illnesses are just not strong enough to deal with ..."

    They are STRONGER than YOU. Your statement is insulting and incorrect. Rather than show such ignorance you should be THANKFUL for the fact you're NOT in such a situation.

    I never thought I'd be alive at 30. But I am.

    Your kind of remark is one reason stigma still exists for mental illness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Re 9 - absolutely correct. As a person who has a near life long history of severe mental illness all the way to psychosis, this is something that gets to me. People who lose a loved one say they're depressed. Depression excludes bereavement. "Does it really matter?" YES! Wrong 'diagnosis' is not helpful to them. They don't mean harm saying it, but it can still be harmful - to themselves + others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #12. Indeed. Its an organ comprising many different types of tissue...... none of which are muscle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.


    The brain certainly isn't a fixed unit, but it certainly isn't a muscle either

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This world could make anyone almost mentaly ill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Mental illness has got to increase as the world changes, and that change is not for the better. I found these photographs, not just illuminating, but revealing. What a person does - mentally ill or otherwise - reflects the core of his soul, and when the soul is troubled, the body's perception of the world becomes distorted - sometimes into a clearer reality & sometimes not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Everyone has 'down days', and unfortunately when they do, many say they are 'depressed'. WRONG. Depression is a huge black pit of dispair that you cannot climb out of by yourself. Anxiety creeps in and makes it even harder. I liken it to spark plugs. Everything is firing, but not connecting properly and sometimes you need help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Our Psychology evolved over 100,000s of years to be a hunter gatherer species - the rot set in around the time we started farming (approx 12,000 BC) allowing modern "civilsation" to come into being.

    We did not evolve to be clossested away in cities/office blocks - continue on this path our Psychologies will eventually alter, but in the meantime we'll get ill in our millions until we've adjusted

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The brain isn't a fixed unit either

    It's a dynamic muscle which can grow or shrink depending on it's use, so it's no different from any other muscle

    If you do a memory exam like the London Cab Test you develop tremendous powers of recall and can dig around for old information in your memory far more easily than you could before doing that kind of discipline

    It reacts to external influences

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.


    You are correct in part. It goes much deeper than that. Thats all I have to say :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I think that a lot of people who suffer mental illnesses are just not strong enough to deal with life as we know it today. It is difficult for most of us to deal with

    External influences can trigger things, I think the brain can blow things out of proportion and then becomes addicted or hard wired to follow that course of action bzzzzzzz...

    For the owner of that brain, it's bloody annoying


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