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Features / World Mental Health Day

Siân Davey on the ways psychotherapy has informed her photography

Before Siân Davey became a photographer, she worked as a psychotherapist, running her own private practice for 15 years. It’s this training, along with her studies in fine art and social policy, which now informs her photographic practice, and Siân has become known for drawing upon her own experiences, to tell stories that are intimate, honest and beautiful.

“I just wanted to know more. I had issues myself, so studying psychotherapy seemed like the natural progression,” Siân says on why she started her psychotherapy training. “I just really wanted to feel well and there are times in our lives where there’s a very thin membrane between sanity and insanity – I just wanted to feel sturdier, more robust.”

Siân was dealing with a number of issues triggered by previous traumas including anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and boundaries in relationships. “I’d been taking a lot of recreational drugs for years, so it was about finding another way of being well,” she says. “The counselling psychotherapy situation gives us a witness to what’s happened, so we can tell our story and hopefully then process that story and move on.” From understanding her own psychology and being able to work towards processing the things she’s been through, the photographer says she feels “more stable now”, choosing to “respond to life, rather than react to it”. With this space around her it eventually led her to picking up a camera around six years ago.

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Siân Davey: Looking for Alice

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Siân Davey: Looking for Alice

“There was no real reason, I just wanted to take pictures. Then I realised the pictures I was taking I’d been seeing them all my life anyway. I just had to work out the camera a bit, so that I could put down what I’d always been seeing,” she says. Siân’s love for her psychotherapy practice had started to wane during that time, yet her passion for photography continued to grow, so after a while it wasn’t long before she made a choice.

“There was a moment. I was seeing an acupuncturist and he just said to me: ‘you must do what you love… when you love what you do, you will get the support you need’ and I just believed him,” explains Siân. “So I went home and I got rid of all my psychotherapy stuff – it was a bit dramatic but I just wanted to commit myself to this new practice. It was a kind of public declaration at home.”

To build her understanding, Siân took on an MA and MFA in photography and during this time her tutor told her to “photograph [her] immediate world and work intuitively”, which at the time was her family, and in particular her youngest, Alice. Alice was born with Down’s Syndrome, but is “no different to any other little girl or indeed human being”, feeling what we all feel. “Alice was my immediate world. I couldn’t just take off and focus on projects that took me away from my family,” she explains. “I was overwhelmed at the time, I was exhausted with Alice’s health issues… My experience of her was so strong it just seemed to spin out into different narratives.”

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Siân Davey: Looking for Alice

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Siân Davey: Martha

The result was Looking for Alice a tender portrait of Siân’s daughter, a story about love and a family’s journey to become one unit. “I didn’t just photograph Alice, I was capturing my other children at the same time,” says Siân. The series went on to be shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize and soon after Siân published another series inspired by her world, Martha – a project focusing on her other daughter, who was 16 when the series began. In the series Martha is between childhood and womanhood, and Siân captured her and her friends during this emotional transitional time. “Martha’s 19 now. Things about the project come out in magazines and I show them to her but she’s not particularly interested,” says Siân. “I get why she’s not though because it’s a representation of her – it’s not how she sees herself.”

Though Siân doesn’t consciously engage with her psychotherapy training for her photography, it has informed the way she views the world, and more specifically how she reads her subjects. “You can work with a deeper sensitivity and awareness of someone because you understand their pathology, just by their posture, their gaze, the conversations you have with them,” says Siân. “It enables me to work at depth with another human being.”

“One of the biggest truths is to realised that we’re all suffering in some way. When we can acknowledge that, then we can start making sense of why that is and who we are.”

– Siân Davey

As such when taking pictures, Siân works instinctively, working moment by moment to document what she sees, then bringing it together during the editing process. “When I get my film back I bring things into consciousness. I look at the reasons why I pressed the shutter at that moment. I can see what’s playing out, what’s driving that moment and then what the narrative might be,” she explains. “When I reach for my camera I don’t conceptualise the moment, I just take the picture. If I did, then something would be lost and it wouldn’t be coming from the same place.”

The photographer has applied this ethos to her latest project Together, for the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the diversity and reality of British family life. Photographing 31 families in 21 days, the series was once again informed by Alice (now six) after Siân had separated from her partner. “She would try to bind us together with her arms. She would say: ‘Mummy, Daddy, Martha, Joseph, Luke, Alice – together’… Alice was telling me that together is love. Love is us, not me,” explains Siân. Once again, drawing upon her own experiences has created a series rich with narrative and compassion, a heartfelt insight into all kinds of familial landscapes.

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Siân Davey: Martha

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Siân Davey: Martha

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Siân Davey: Martha

Right now, Siân is “strongly committed” to her photography practice, taking on more commercial projects while retaining her DNA and never compromising on her integrity. “I’m more in tune to how I’m feeling and the context and environment,” she says of her progression since starting. “I understand life a lot better, more in terms of narratives and what story is there.”

This strong sense of self has been helped by the work and therapy Siân has undertaken and her advice to anyone who’s thinking of trying therapy is to just “go and see what happens”. “Try one or two therapists out – don’t assume that the first person is supposed to be the right person,” says Siân. “Hopefully it will become a long-term relationship, so stay with it and get well. And realise you’re full potential, I think that’s what gets lost in trauma – people forget their potential.”

Reflecting on the importance of initiatives like World Mental Health Day, Siân encourages open conversation. “People are so disconnected from family and relationships, I think we’re in crisis at the moment. So I think bringing our awareness in times like these about mental health normalises it and enabling people to talk about it is key,” Siân explains. “It’s actually very terrifying to feel on the edge of sanity… One of the biggest truths is to realised that we’re all suffering in some way. When we can acknowledge that, then we can start making sense of why that is and who we are.”

1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year, and in England, 1 in every 6 people report a common mental health problem – like anxiety and depression – each week. But only 1 in 4 people in the UK reporting mental health difficulties receive ongoing treatment. If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in today’s coverage, if you would like to find out more or to donate, please contact Mind or CALM.

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Siân Davey: Martha

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Siân Davey: Together

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Siân Davey: Together

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Siân Davey: Together