Two years ago today (September 15) was one of the proudest days of my life. An exhibition of my portraits opened at Gallery Oldham for a two-month stint. The exhibition was the pinnacle of two years of hard work, assisted by my friend and business partner, Robert Cragg.
For a long time I had it in my head that I wanted to do a photographic project to illustrate that there is life after (and with) depression. My plan was to photograph people I admire, the strong and powerful survivors. The people who, like me, have something positive to say about living with a mental health diagnosis. I was tired of only reading the negative stuff. I wanted to show new sufferers that they can get better and they will be stronger people for it.
I chose the title, the Open Shutters Project, not only because of the photographic reference, but because I think it is time the shutters were opened on the dark and secretive world of mental illness.
Everyone who took part wrote a blog or recorded a video to tell their story alongside their portrait. Here is mine:
Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, people’s mental health is challenged on an unprecedented scale amd it seems important to revisit that original message of hope and have another go at spreading it. I can’t have a real exhibition this time,. but I can host a virtual exhibition here on my website. I will be resharing the portraits from the original exhibition and allowing those people, should they wish to, to update their stories.
I am also throwing open an invitation to anyone who would like to be photographed and tell their story to come forward. Maybe, when all this is “better”, we can hold Open Shutters II somewhere.
What happened next?
On the opening day of the exhibition in 2018 I was front and centre of it all, giving speeches and media interviews all day. So you might be surprised to know that my world came crashing down around my ears that day.
On the day my exhibition opened my marriage fell apart. My husband had never really understood why my work or the project was so important to me. We had been struggling for some time but I thought when he saw the exhibition he would be proud of me. He wasn’t. He told me the whole thing was a complete waste of time and money. I was devastated.
The launch day was completely ruined for me. I was giving interviews about the positive aspects of mental health while inside I felt like I was dying. And I felt like that for some time after. I couldn’t enjoy any of the praise and accolades that came my way from visitors to the exhibition. I didn’t even want to see the portraits. I felt like a failure and a fraud.
Robert made me visit the exhibition. I sat there alone in the gallery feeling ashamed. But there was nowhere to hide. Each portrait sitter had been asked to look straight into the camera lens. So, as I sat there, there were 32 pairs of eyes – including my own – boring into me. I had thought they were judging me, but as I looked around I could see sympathy and empathy from all directions. And I could hear the echoes of their words of wisdom from their own stories ringing in my ears.
It sounds so twee to say it now, out loud, but I realised that those 31 other people had my back, even though many of them were unaware still of my latest battles. I began to refer to my portrait companions as my squad and I began to visit them more often. Even to me it sounds bizarre, but the expression on their faces seemed to change depending on my frame of mind and the type of support I needed. Some days they were sympathetic and supportive, some days they gave me a metaphorical kick up the backside. Always they were encouraging me to move forwards.
When I was recording the stories there were many moments that brought me up short, ideas that hadn’t occurred to me. The overwhelming message from everyone who took part was to talk. And so that’s what I did. I explained to everyone around me what was going on in my personal life and I allowed them to help me.
As I sat on the bench in the gallery, various bits of advice came back to me, as though my squad was giving me a mass counselling session.
Time went by and gradually I got better. By July 2019 I was strong enough to stand up in front of an audience and tell my story at Tedx Oldham. Three days later I went on a first date with a kind looking man I’d been chatting to online.
Days before lockdown we moved into a new home together, along with my two children, and although we were thrown together 24/7 very soon afterwards we have thrived as a family unit.
Robert has retired during lockdown, so I am now trying, alone, to rebuild a photography business that was closed down for months and is still subject to many restrictions. My partner and I have opened a bed and furniture shop as a result of him losing his job at the start of lockdown. And inbetween all that, and months of home schooling, I have continued to look after the day to day business of Create Oldham from my kitchen table.
Even with so much to keep me busy, and with such a strong support network around me, I have struggled over the six months of lockdown. I regularly have to remind myself that, like every other difficult period of my life, this too shall pass. And I have a bank of positive role models to refer back to in the Open Shutters Project.
It’s time to unleash my squad again to hopefully inspire and uplift, or at the very least to show people they are not alone.