Everyone pictured here hides behind a mask. They are people you could know and see every day. A mother. A daughter. A father. A son. A friend or a neighbour.
Like the participants in this project, I too wear a mask every day. The words ‘I’m fine’ are the walls that surround the real me, they are my escape route and the lie that defines my outward appearance. But how do you start to talk about the issues that make you hide? How do you tell someone else that you are struggling to face the world unmasked?
Stigma prevents conversation. But why are we all so focused on verbal conversation anyway? Billions of photographs are shared on line each day. The images communicate and connect instantly with us on a subconscious level.
This happens before any stigma can affect the message. We do not need words. Photographs start the conversation when our voices fail us.
As Bradley et al (2001) said “the power of images to interpret events and emotions is a basic premise of art”
But photography is not just a form of art; it is also a means of expression and a way of communicating our deepest thoughts and emotions. A single photograph can tell a hundred different stories.
For this project, I have deliberately set out to re-frame my way of working. I am no longer satisfied to speak on behalf of my subjects without their voice being heard. I have moved away from being both the author and the creator. The voice of the project is democratic, with all participants becoming stakeholders in the outcome. The participants are as much the authors as I am. The project choices and direction have become our commonly shared goal.
The democratisation of the participants voices results in images that are authentic and true to real-life. Each image has been produced in the same way. They are not staged, but record moments of real emotion. This real-life aesthetic delivers the message sympathetically and authentically to the viewer. The consistent composition ensures that the image is not affected by the location the shot is taken. Reducing the portraits to just headshots removes any potential for distraction from the background. The consistency ensures that the viewer concentrates on the message. This visual language is synonymous with my goal of portraying everyone as normal and as equal.
The process is interactive and participatory through the words each person writes onto the masks. The words they write are personal to them; there is no hidden agenda; no scripting; what you read on each mask is the voice of the person. The visual message and the collaborative nature make this project socially engaging and adds an increased agency to the output.
The photographs facilitate an empowering experience for the participants who have suffered from a lack of acceptance. They are able to make eye contact with themselves, maybe for the first time in their lives. The photographs make it easier for them to show other people who they truly are behind the mask and how they are feeling. Words cannot always do this. We lose meaning in the translation and interpretation of the words that the visual nature of photographs does not.
In her book, PhotoTherapy Techniques, psychologist Judy Weiser suggests that photographs can be used as a therapeutic tool when working with self-portraits. Her clients are encouraged and supported to understand the images they make themselves. They can also see other perspectives of themselves when they examine photographs taken of them by others.
Weiser also suggests that we take photos of what is important in our lives, often at a subconscious level, and that in many ways all photographs we take are to some extent also self-portraits. They show what we care about. There is a little bit of us in each image; we are connected to the image; we feel the emotion we felt at when we took the photograph.
When Jo Spence produced, and showed work that concentrated on her battle with breast cancer, she created images that portrayed her emotional responses as well as her experiences with the treatment she underwent. Through this process, she suggested that the strength of the viewers’ responses to the images reinforces their validity as expressive objects. This is also true of the images in my current body of work whether the images are explicitly laden with emotion or whether they are more ambiguous in their portrayal. Spence’s work has been quite influential in the way that I have conducted this project. Her work has been described as intimate and honest and it is to this that I aspire this project to be. Spence herself commented “Through photo therapy, I was able to explore how I felt about my powerlessness as a patient, my relationship to doctors and nurses . . . whilst being managed and ‘processed’ within a state institution” – Jo Spence (Confronting, intimate, honest and uncomfortable 2014)
My practice draws parallels with Spence’s in that she “referred to herself as an educational photographer . . . her direct, often confrontational style was intended to be both pedagogic and emotive. For Spence, photography should be informative” (Jo Spence: Biography 2017). My current body of work embraces this concept and is intended to raise awareness and educate the viewer about the issues that cause many of us to hide. The emotion in the unmasked images is clear. The pain is real. By looking at the images, the viewer begins to experience how the participant feels.
However, the impact and interpretation of the images will depend on the viewer’s personal experiences too. Documentary photographer, Eugene Smith (Loewenthal 2013), expressed that a “photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.”
In the project, each mask is presented on its own before the wearer is revealed. The viewer is required to engage with the images and the words to determine who they think is behind the mask. By not seeing the person’s hair, gender, clothing etc., the viewer wonders about and will make assumptions about the person behind the mask. They have to decide, from their own life experiences, what the person will look like. The reveal leaves the viewer challenged in their perception of what people are hiding. This makes the project more powerful and makes the viewer realise that ‘ordinary’ people suffer too.
During this module, I have been actively networking via my online presence. As a result, I have developed and updated profiles on social media sites, as well as a dedicated website for the project. My photography website has also been updated. Disseminating my work via social media platform and the internet ensures that the project will be seen by many, including those who are reclusive due to their issues. This offers a vital way of engaging with many people through their preferred technology and raises awareness of issues with them.
The demographics of the Project Facebook page are astonishing. In just under 2 months, the page has over 2600 followers and an astounding 80% of those followers are aged 13-17.
The interest of the younger generation in the project has led me to contact the charity MQ about working with them. At this moment in time they do not have the resources to work with arts projects and fully vet them to ensure that the work is delivering right message. This is totally understandable as the wrong exposure could prove damaging for them and the work they are doing. However, some of their employees have offered to take part in the project as they believe it is a really strong concept.
To develop local connections, in 2018 I will be running ‘behind the mask’ photography sessions at Viney Hall Physiotherapy. They have invited me to run the sessions to further the project. This is a great opportunity to roll out the project to a wider audience and get more people to participate.
The project also has an Instagram page where images are posted daily to raise awareness of the project. The page currently has 136 followers. All images are tagged with #behindthemaskwewear.
To encourage wider conversation about the issues surrounding the masks that we wear, I have created a website for the project. The promotes the project, and provides a means for those who do not live close to me to be involved. There is a page about how to submit images from anywhere in the world. This project is about raising awareness and acceptance wherever people are located.
I am thrilled to announce that one of the images in this project has been shortlisted in the portrait category of the Picfair Women Behind the Lens competition. The image is part of an exhibition that has been installed and is open to the public at the Guardian News and Media Gallery in London until 11th January. The category and overall winners will be announced at an event at the end of the exhibition. I am honoured and very proud that the image has been shortlisted. It allows the message to be shared to a much wider audience. Off the back of this, I have been using the news to promote the project and my practice further through social media and other media outlets including local newspapers and radio channels.
I continue to be inspired by these courageous people to pick up my camera to help them tell their story, I am in awe of how beautiful yet vulnerable the participants appear. Viewing themselves through a different lens to see the suffering hidden by the persona they present to the world is enlightening to them.
One of the participants of the project said, please take the time to talk to each other.
Thank you for listening
Bradley, F., Brown, K. and Nairne, A. 2001. Trauma. London: Hayward Gallery.
Confronting, intimate, honest and uncomfortable. 2014. Dazed [online]. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/22149/1/confronting-intimate-honest-and-uncomfortable [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
Jo Spence: Biography. 2017. Jospence.org [online]. Available at: http://www.jospence.org/biography.html [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
Loewenthal, Del. 2013. Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. London: Routledge.
Weiser, J. (1993). Phototherapy techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.