Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Picture this: The Mind

Coco Capitán, Laia Abril, Roger Ballen, Joshua Lutz, and Bex Day, respond to the theme the mind for Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 — the next in a new series of articles inviting artists to respond to a theme with image and text
Picture This, British Journal of Photography — May 2020

Photo: Laia Abril

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo,” writes Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar — her semi-autobiographical novel charting its protagonist’s steep descent into mental illness. The description seems apt for the situation in which we find ourselves now — millions confined inside, isolated in the stillness of our homes, while the world outside collapses around us.

Esther, The Bell Jar’s protagonist, compares her mind to a tornado’s eye as she veers deeper and deeper into depression — her life spins out of control while a heavy emptiness ensnares her. Similarly, fear and anxiety consume us as a relentless pandemic engulfs the lives we once had.

For those with pre-existing mental health issues, the situation may accentuate or ease symptoms; or it may be completely irrelevant. Everyone experiences mental illness differently, to various degrees, and to attempt to make some collective statement about it would be to simplify and trivialise each individual struggle.

The mind is a complex, and often scary, place, and to mark Mental Health Awareness Week amid a pandemic, we asked five artists to reflect on it. Coco Capitán, Laia Abril, Roger Ballen, Joshua Lutz, and Bex Day responded; their replies are published below.

Coco Capitán

Coco Capitán’s artistic and design work spans varied paths, practices and media — painting, thinking, writing, photography, among many other approaches. Blending bold colours, words, and forms, Capitán’s style is playful, introspective, and completely distinct.

Laia Abril

Laia Abril delves into complex and painful realities connected to sexuality, eating disorders, and gender equality, employing photography, text, video, and sound to reveal stories, which would otherwise remain untold.

“Grief in isolation is brutal. It is really physical, which is an odd feeling to face when you haven’t had human contact for more than 70 days. For those with complex relationships to their body — and their mind — we need to navigate these uncertain times carefully. With compassion. With forgiveness.

“Sometimes you feel as though your body is like a ship driven by the torrent of fear, triggered by dystopian news. Sometimes you feel that your mind is playing a simulation game, waiting to move to the next screen. Then mourning offers you a few seconds of a shivering reality and it’s like you’ve seen the matrix of life.

“Most of my career has focused on visualising the pain of others. Sometimes I’ve even channelled my own pain through theirs. I believe in the power of images to carry the souls of those we remember and the act of photographing as the alchemy for transcending sorrow.”

Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen delves deep into the dark recesses of the mind to create work. Black-and-white photography is his central medium, along with drawing, painting, collage and sculptural techniques, which give form to his explorations of the human psyche.

“We may ignore them, watch them with intrigue, or dispel them as nightmares entering as a curse from afar or as signs of psychosis”

“This image depicts characters that live in the depths or peripheries of the mind where they have been repressed, extruded, or exiled. At times they might escape and visit us, projecting themselves into the screen of the mind’s eye.

“We may ignore them, watch them with intrigue, or dispel them as nightmares entering as a curse from afar or as signs of psychosis. But, what is experienced might also be seen as a comforting gift from deep within our psyches or from a more spiritual realm elsewhere.”

Joshua Lutz

Joshua Lutz works with large-format photography and video. His meditative book Hesitating Beauty reflects on his relationship to his mother’s mental illness through a poignant blend of archived family images, imagined correspondences, and his own photographs.

“There is a moment, right after dreaming, but before getting out of bed. It is a moment when all the individual, subjective mental activities haven’t been formed. At this moment the partner next to me hasn’t been born, the house I sleep in has not been built, and this text you read has not been written.

“It is only a moment and very soon all my belongings form where I am and my needs form what I have to do. Just like that my mind comes crashing in and a whole world is formed with me as the protagonist.

“All the work I do, and all the pictures I make, are an attempt, in some way, to simply get back to that moment.”

Bex Day

Bex Day’s playful, alluring, and surreal images challenge conventional conceptions of identity. She captures her subjects as themselves, taking time to understand them, rather than creating depictions clouded by personal or societal preconceptions.

“I shot this series of photographs for Vogue Italia with my pet African Land Snails back when I lived in Berlin. The models, who are good friends of mine, were willingly covered head-to-toe in cucumber juice so the snails would enjoy slowly traipsing over their bodies. The photograph felt fitting for the theme of the mind as a commentary on fears and overcoming them.

“Snail Series explores Molluscophobia: the fear of snails and other slimy creatures. I wanted to incorporate this into a beauty shoot as the photographs explore the intimacy of the female form paired with the interaction of the snails sliding over various body parts.

“Treatments for phobias and Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are similar in the respect that they both require Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) to overcome the specific traits of each individual. The idea behind ERP is that when you are exposed to the thing you fear, over time, the longer you expose yourself to it, the more the fear diminishes. The image depicts a moment of serenity and restfulness while the snail climbs over the model’s left eye — a sense of deep connection and intimacy is revealed between the snail and my friend.

“As someone who has OCD, more specifically Pure O, the lockdown has definitely accentuated it, which was one of the main themes of my current ongoing series Seesaw. The pandemic has been another form of ERP for me — I lost my father earlier this year to leukaemia and the idea of my mother, who is high-risk, dying from Covid-19 is something I’ve had a tendency to obsess over. The OCD has definitely latched onto this. It has been a difficult time, but also a learning curve as I have had more exposure than ever in this respect, and the fear is slowly diminishing with time.”