Behind the facade

Photographer Daniel Regan talks to about using art to challenge public perceptions of mental and physical illness

From Insula

From Insula

This year, Mental Health Awareness Week will be held in the UK from the 12th to 18th May. With mental health problems affecting 1 in 4 British adults each year, many may be shocked to learn that mental health is still considered a taboo in society. Yet for those living with these difficulties, such as London photographer Daniel Regan, alienation from the world around them is often a daily battle.

Daniel, a photographer whose work looks at breaking down some of these taboos, believes that there is still a large stigma attached to mental health problems. It is this stigmatisation that has often led him to feel as though he is living a double life, forced to put on a ‘normal’ front in the eyes of the public.

“I find that the more open I am, the more I can open other people’s eyes”

“It’s very difficult. Even though a lot is being done, I know from my own experience that it has not always been possible to be truthful about how you might feel, or what kind of state you’re in. But it’s not something you can escape from; it’s something that’s with you all the time. Even though people might think you’re fine because on the outside you’re smiling, there’s that feeling of being torn inside that you can’t quite explain to someone the situation, because they can’t recognise it.”

Such observations have fuelled Daniel’s belief that mental health needs to be addressed further in public. “At the moment, there are huge difficulties in giving mental health problems the attention they deserve, because they’re invisible. And I guess because of those difficulties, people are often scared to talk about it. “I’ve always been quite transparent about my own difficulties, because I want to use my experience to try and break down some of the taboos around it. I find that the more open I am, the more I can open other people’s eyes.”

From Insula

From Insula

This transparency has been communicated through Daniel’s photography project Insula, which documents the “emotional difficulties of living with a chronic mental health disorder”. With images spanning across a decade of shooting, from 2003-2013, the photographs reflect the differing emotional states Daniel felt throughout his ongoing journey of recovery. He describes the project as a representation of the facade we create, in order to “present ourselves to the world”.

“The images deal with the theme of second skin and suffocation, and of having to deal with something you can’t escape from. A lot of the photographs work with lights and darks, reflecting the journey of falling into darkness, and finding hope in the tiniest bit of light.”

The images are incredibly personal to Daniel, and were initially intended as a diary, shot in response to moments or events that carried difficulties for him emotionally. In 2013, however, Daniel made the bold decision to uncover these images, showcasing them to the public for his MA show at London College of Communication. This, he tells me, was not a decision he took lightly.

“Because the project is entirely personal, I’ve always been quite apprehensive about sharing them with people. It was a difficult experience for me to have to lay these on a table and look at them objectively, and work out how to tell a story through them. But for me, photography has always been very important in managing emotional states. It’s what I turn to in order to express those difficulties without having to explain or talk to people about it.”

During his most difficult years, photography came to be a form of art therapy for Daniel, becoming a tool through which he could “make sense of the chaos” and “let go and move forward”. He tells me that this was a tool he very much needed, after he experienced numerous problems with the mental health system. “My experience of it has been very difficult. Psychological therapies were not always available when I needed them, so it took me a long time to get the treatment that I needed. Photography was very valuable. Once I’d made it into something real and something physical, as opposed to just thinking about it in my mind, it took the pressure off a bit. Putting it all together has helped me come to terms with things. But Insula isn’t a finished project; it’s a chapter within an ongoing story of recovery that continues to this day.”

From The Alopecia Project

From The Alopecia Project

Not only has the project helped Daniel cope with his own mental health difficulties, he also believes that putting it out into the public has helped break down some of the stigmatisation surrounding mental health. “It was interesting at the final show to have people come and gauge their reactions. I found that being able to talk to them afterwards helped a great deal, because once they understood the story and the purpose behind it, they warmed to it, and thought about their own difficulties and emotional experiences. The project is still in its early stages of getting it out into the world, but I hope to be able to take this further.”

Though he believes that Insula has done a lot to help kick-start the process of breaking down taboos surrounding mental health, Daniel admits that some of the photos can still be quite shocking for viewers, most particularly those depicting parts of the body that he cut during acts of self harm. Yet despite acknowledging that these images may upset some viewers, Daniel maintains that these were important moments in his journey of recovery, and as such, remain a vital part of his collection. “In order to give a truthful representation of the journey that I’ve been on, I think it’s important to include some of those images, because they’re a real part of my experience; I am a self harmer, and I think that’s plays a key role in illustrating my difficulties and the responses I’ve had to certain situations.”

Talking to Daniel, it is easy to sense his utter dedication to reducing the stigmatisation currently surrounding mental health issues. Though Insula began as a personal project, Daniel has become a brilliant spokesperson for those who often feel ostracised within society because of their mental illness. His other projects have also gone a long way to help eradicate certain taboos, not only of mental, but physical difficulties. In 2011, he began the Alopecia Project, a series of portraits that looks to prevent baldness, particularly of women, from being perceived negatively in society.

“Photoshop has become an expectation”

Alopecia is a hair-loss disease that currently affects around 1.7 per cent of the UK population. Its exact causes are unknown, but experts believe that it is a disease of the immune system. Daniel began the project after being introduced to a young woman, who, he was shocked to learn, was suffering from the condition. “She had beautiful blue eyes and incredible auburn hair, and I was actually looking at her thinking I would love to take a portrait of her. We got talking throughout the evening and I commented on how lovely her hair was, and she just casually said, it’s not mine; I’m bald, I’ve got alopecia. I invited her over to my studio and took a photo of her without her hair. That first image to me was very unusual and striking, because it was the first time I’d seen a woman without hair, or eyelashes or eyebrows.”

It was her story, however, that inspired Daniel to expand the project further. “Her story was heartbreaking, because it seemed as though there was an extreme lack of support in what was offered to these people. I decided to look around to see what kind of imagery there was of people with alopecia, and it was dire. There were basically just snapshot images taken in a doctor’s surgery, which would make anyone experiencing it feel incredibly negative about it. After that, I set out to make a project of these beautiful, strong, empowering images for people affected by the condition.”

Daniel points out that for many suffering from Alopecia, the impact on them was more than just physical; many also experienced psychological problems as a result of their hair loss. “Many people, particularly women, feel shame in losing their hair. No-one knows why it happens, and there’s no research being done into why it happens, so people are often left in a position where they no longer feel empowered, because they don’t have any answers.”

From Headism

From Headism

Yet this shame, Daniel informs me, has largely developed due to perceptions of beauty in today’s society. In a world of unrealistic, airbrushed images that continue to dominate magazines and adverts it is easy to see why these women no longer feel they belong. “Beauty is marketed by these establishments as having the longest, thickest hair, and these pressures can be very damaging for people with alopecia. But it isn’t just in magazines – Photoshop has become an expectation, and what we’re left with is false, misrepresentative images.”

For Daniel, this project was all about celebrating what people look like in reality. It is this level of truthfulness that Daniel believes we need to revert back to, in order to help normalise such conditions within society. “The more images get out there and the more people’s stories get out there, wider society will learn to accept things and realise that they’re really not that different to you or anybody else.”

Daniel has certainly pushed this to the extreme, taking a more light-hearted stance on baldness in his project Headism. Working alongside artists Philip Levine and Kat Sinclair, this collaboration presents the ways in which we can creatively embrace baldness, by photographing what can only be described as quirky embellishments on a hairless head.

Both Headism and the Alopecia Project were brought together in an exhibition entitled Bald and Bold, showcased in London earlier this year. The two, Daniel tells me, came together perfectly. “Both addressed hair, and what it means in society, as well as the taboo of losing it. Though they took two very different stances on this, they both addressed the importance we assign to hair today.”

It seems to me that Daniel is at the beginning of an unstoppable mission to eradicate the stigmatisation of physical and mental illness. At just 29, he has already created brilliantly enlightening projects that have done much to question the way we perceive beauty and normality. Not only has he showcased Insula and the Alopecia Project, he has also worked alongside the Katie Piper Foundation, creating positive campaign posters that look towards the achievements of burn victims, as opposed to their negative experiences.

From Insula

From Insula

So where, I wonder, can he go next? “I’m looking at creating a book of the Alopecia Project, working with an art therapist to show how photography can be used to help people come to terms with their new body image. I’m also working on the Burns Survivor Project, which will look at raising awareness of what burn survivors go through, as well as the extensive treatments they undergo. I want to challenge ideas in society of what is beautiful by exposing what’s underneath the clothes.”

Daniel is a true inspiration, battling his own difficulties to provide a voice to those who feel they no longer conform to society’s expectations. Though he tells me a lot has been done in the last few years to combat stigmatisation, there is still a lot more that could be achieved.

“I still think there’s stigma around both mental and physical difficulties, but if you can get images out there that normalise what you’re talking about, then the wider public will have a greater understanding. It will hopefully help break down those misconceptions.” With utmost sincerity, I wish him all the luck.

All images provided by Daniel Regan

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