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Features / World Mental Health Day 2018

Steph Wilson speaks honestly about her relationship with mental health and photography

Steph Wilson is a photographer able to convey a message in her work, without directly shouting about it. She has an ability to embed messages, whether its sneaking feminism into a fashion shoot or portraying her own thoughts in the pose of one of her own subjects. It’s difficult to describe but there’s something about Steph’s photography that just makes you feel things.

This is due to Steph’s always being honest, behind and in front of the camera. Her work is personal, and she takes it personally too. Below, Steph talks us through her own experience of mental health, and how she copes with the pressures of being a freelance photographer.

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It’s Nice That: Can you tell us about your own relationship with mental health and which factors personally affect you?

Steph Wilson: I went undiagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder from 11 to 18, until I had a new GP who was horrified to realise that at 5.5 stone and unable to leave the house more than once or twice a week, I had not been put on any medication. Since then, (I am now 26) I have been on a low dose of citalopram, and have had a very successful round of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

To me, it is so normal, and it was such a dominating part of the whole of my teenage and adult life; I may as well be admitting to having had a bad spell of eczema. The panic attacks would cause constant violent nausea, triggered by an irrational anxiety of throwing up, stopping me from eating. My father, now dead, was an incredibly overbearing man, an alcoholic and a staunch capitalist from a military background. It didn’t bode well. Since getting a handle on the workings of my anxiety, I’ve been pretty much a normal functioning human being, despite the odd spell of insomnia, sometimes (but rarely) causing panic attacks. The last one I had was en route to the airport back to the UK after a shoot in Switzerland. The fact I DID the shoot, however, would have astonished me a few years previously. I had barely been able to eat a meal in public; the thought of flying to another country to shoot a campaign would have been out of the question. It’s amazing how you can surpass and surprise yourself.

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INT: Are there certain parts of being a freelance photographer which particularly trigger feelings for you?

SW: Of course, any freelancer is in a constant anxious state! I often discuss this with close friends – also freelance photographers –with mental health conditions, and we think it’s worth cautioning anyone asking whether or not it’s a good idea to go freelance.

It seems that, to be a photographer/artist/creative – freelance or not – you must attain certain qualities, all discordant with one another. In order to “create”, you must have a strong emotional connection to things, especially yourself. You have to be sensitive and intuitive to the nuances of daily life in order to distill them in your work. Nevertheless, you also have to be incredibly resilient to criticism, social media pressures and work-related let downs with dropped assignments. You are constantly in fear of being “not good enough”, yet if you were not fearful, then perhaps you do not possess the sensitivity and self-criticism an artist needs in order to produce and improve their work. Not only that, but you have to be confident of your value and adept at making a business work — that business being yourself.

As a woman, you’re up against another whole host of societal constraints and stigmas when it comes to talking money etc. Essentially, it’s a constant battle to maintain a healthy balance, often allowing one over the other given the circumstance — it’s enough to drive anyone mad!

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INT: In your experience, what has been the attitude of people you work with towards mental health?

SW: I wouldn’t engage with a client about anything concerning my or anyone else’s mental health, unless it was applicable to the job. I think when you have a regular team you do become close friends, and when under stress you all band together. I think it’s natural to discuss mental health on set, if it’s an open atmosphere and you’re around people you trust. I am pretty transparent with anyone about the topic, as I feel it should be totally normalised. But, others suffering may not want to focus on it at the time if they’re at work and want to focus on the job. 

INT: Could you pinpoint certain photographs of yours which represent your own feelings towards mental health?

SW: I used to explicitly focus on it as a theme, but that was a while ago; I feel it’s the subtleties and escapist or empowering elements in a photograph that speaks more strongly for how I feel about it now. The fact I am shooting work in locations I love with fantastic teams, realising a fully fledged story from an idea, is testament to how mental health disorders do not need to hold you back. These three [photographs below] encapsulate that quite well, I think.

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INT: Can you tell us about your ongoing project with new mothers and where the idea stemmed from?

I’ve loved shooting this series. It is technically on-going but I took a break away from it to focus on another project. The first image was taken a couple of years ago of a friend breastfeeding her baby, naked in the garden in Sussex. I fell in love with that image, but it stood alone for a while as it was just a spur of the moment thing. 

Then, I spoke to Danielle at Riposte about shooting a cover for their 10th issue based on celebration. I knew another friend expecting, after a long spell of ill-health, so to me it was the first thing that came to mind. I then put the word out that I was looking for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and ended up very quickly with a full inbox. Over a period of a month I shot three women, Giulia twice (once pregnant and once just after her caesarian) and had an incredibly wonderful time. I’d love to end the project with a broad spectrum of women, and publish a book or exhibit the images one day – all babies invited (it could double up as a crèche). 

Aesthetically speaking, I really wanted to shoot images that were not typical mother-baby photos. Not necessarily pretty but just, quite honest. I wanted to remove the individual and, instead, abstract the bodies, creating something quite amorphic and fleshy: I suppose what a baby would see itself as… Also portraying the sense of oneness between the two bodies (which only days before would have been exactly the case). I am aware it is a topic already very well-documented and this had been a concern to begin with, but with a subject as monumental as birth, I suppose there are infinite angles and ever changing perceptions that need challenging. 

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INT: How do you feel the creative industry, particularly those working in photography, can better support creatives who may be concerned about their mental health?

SW: Honestly? Money. The creative industries starve their creative sources (almost literally). People need to be paid more, and on time. If the huge anxiety of paying the rent and buying dinner is removed, it would VASTLY reduce the detrimental affect the industry has on people’s mental health. There is the notion that creative work is “fun” and “we would do it anyway”, which is total bullshit and just leads to people throwing in the towel. If people spent less time worrying about finances, chasing invoices and working an additional job to keep them afloat then there would be more time for developing ideas and producing work, thus creating a better outcome for everybody. The money is there, agencies and (usually the biggest) clients just take the piss.

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