Award-winning photographer John Ferguson is working on a project that aims to shed a new light on mental ill health. Sheena Grant gets a preview

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MOST of us have somewhere we like to retreat to for relaxation or to gather our thoughts. But when people are affected by depression, that bolthole from everyday life can take on a whole new meaning.

Award-winning photographer John Ferguson has set out to capture something of that significance, to challenge myths about the illness and remove some of the stigma that still surrounds it by photographing sufferers in their place of safety.

His subjects so far include a lawyer, a councillor and former mayor, a businesswoman, an artist and a therapist. And that’s only the beginning. By the time next October’s World Mental Health Day comes round, he hopes to have photographed up to 30 people affected by depression from all walks of life and be ready to unveil the completed project, which he has called My Safe Place.

A preview of five hauntingly beautiful photographs taken so far has already been held, at an awareness-raising and information-sharing event in Ipswich to mark this year’s World Mental Health Day.

It was organised by public relations consultant Helen Oldfield, whose husband, Chaz Wood, is one of those photographed for the My Safe Place project.

“John’s pictures always tell a lovely story within a beautiful image,” says Helen. “I knew he would be able to shed a different light on this subject and he would do it with great dignity, without patronising people or showing them in a victim-like way.

“Some of the pictures are poignant and people might see different elements of sadness in them, but actually they are also really uplifting, positive pictures.

“They dispel any myths about who someone with mental health problems is. Many of the people in these pictures are people doing high- pressure jobs to a high standard while dealing with all this other stuff quite privately.”

Chaz is pictured beach-fishing at Shingle Street.

He developed severe depression after being involved in a road accident while travelling with his daughter, Lilly. She was unhurt but the trauma of the accident and what might have happened had far-reaching psychological consequences for him.

Chaz was a lawyer and was in the process of setting up his own law firm locally at the time of the accident and subsequent depression.

“He was driving to meet me for a family weekend,” says Helen. “He and Lilly never arrived. The car had aquaplaned in the rain, spun over a few times and ended up facing the wrong direction on the motorway. No-one else was involved and someone must have been watching over them because Lilly did not have a scratch on her. Chaz had cuts and bruises. He had a couple of weeks off work but when he returned to his desk he had a panic attack and soon afterwards fell into a deep depression.”

With treatment, Chaz is now much better but no longer works as a lawyer.

He says: “When I got depression everything stopped. I realised I could just sit indoors and watch Jeremy Kyle, but being an outdoors sort of person I thought ‘I have got to get out and do something.’ So I took up fishing again, which I had not done for many years.

“I went off to the beach and found it really good. There is nothing there apart from you, the beach, the sea and sky. You leave everything else behind. I found it very helpful. I think that is what John wants to capture with the pictures.”

For Chaz, one of the best and most unexpected things that has come out of taking up beach fishing again has been a new-found friendship with some of his neighbours.

“We struck up a conversation about it when I was loading up my car one day and now we go fishing together every week or two,” he says.

Chaz hopes the pictures will inspire others who may be suffering from depression to think that they too can get out and do something for themselves.

“I hope it will make people think differently about depression. When I was ill I didn’t socialise for quite a while. When I started seeing people again it would have been easy to brush off the reasons for my absence, but I chose to be up-front about it and told them I’d had clinical depression. They were always concerned and always said they knew someone else who had it too, or maybe even that they had it themselves.”

Suffolk county councillor and former Ipswich mayor Jane Chambers is another of John’s subjects. Her depression was first diagnosed 25 years ago.

“I think I’ve actually had it much longer than that but I didn’t recognise the symptoms at first,” she says. “When I am badly affected I just want to turn my face to the wall and not get up. Sometimes I can’t even pinpoint what brings it on.”

John photographed her standing in shallow water with sunlight reflecting off the pool around her and clouds racing across an azure-blue sky overhead.

“I remember feeling most comfortable as a child standing in a stream at my grandfather’s farm,” she says. “So water seemed the most natural place for me to be photographed.

“I found the whole experience very reflective. It took me back to my childhood in a way. I thought about my grandfather and mother and the people I miss, but felt quite at peace with myself.”

She hopes being open about her depression will demonstrate that people with mental illness can and do lead fulfulling lives.

“My illness has never affected my council work,” she says. “My attitude is ‘I have got mental ill health: get over it’.”

Holistic therapist Helen Taylor spends her working life helping others resolve their problems, but she has experienced mental ill health herself.

She was photographed by John in her safe place: the Quaker meeting house she attends.

Helen, who lives near Bury St Edmunds, has suffered what she calls three “fairly big breakdowns” in the past. The first was when she was just a teenager and the last only three years ago.

“I left home at 16 and wasn’t really ready for the big wide world,” she says. “My own experiences have led me into the work I am now doing.

“I think a lot of my trauma has been to do with the relationship with my mother and why she was like she was. She hated me so much and kept telling me to ‘go to Hell’.

“I took that into myself and thought I must be a really terrible person. At 16 I took myself off and went into hotel and housekeeping work for the sake of having somewhere to live but ended up being exploited. Looking back, I can see how the events in my life were the most wonderful preparation for helping others later on, connecting with them and absorbing what they are going through. I am 51 now and made total peace with my mother and father.”

Helen describes discovering her local Quaker meeting house a few years ago as like coming home.

“I think I have come through the difficulties of my past. They are always present but in a positive way,” she says. “I am so thankful and grateful for the life I have now.

“I hope the photographic project will enable people to feel that when they are suffering emotionally or mentally they are not alone. There are so many of us out here who have our own version of suffering. We may not know what other people’s suffering is like but we can meet them half way.

“Mental health problems are part of being human, especially at this moment in our history when we are under so much pressure from the speed at which life is lived.”

The story behind John’s photograph of Tina Gibbons is one of the most uplifting of all.

Tina is the founder of the Mind Sanctuary, a website offering all manner of information on mental health and wellbeing. Starting the venture was really the culmination of a personal journey for her.

After being diagnosed with “potential” bipolar disorder when she was in her 20s she took medication for around three years. Advised that she was “too ill” to come off the drugs without relapsing but “not ill enough” to warrant additional support, she desperately needed a place where she could find out what other therapies and treatment options were available.

After paying for therapy, she successfully came off medication and instead uses a combination of natural approaches such as yoga, diet, mindfulness and lifestyle choices to manage her own mental health.

She set up the sanctuary to offer the kind of information and support to others that she herself would have liked when she was ill and during her own recovery.

Eight months ago Tina gave birth to her first child, a daughter called Amber. The two were photographed by John at their home near Bury.

“I had been flagged up as being potentially at risk for experiencing post-natal depression because of the problems I had experienced with my mental health,” she says. “So I did as much as I could to support myself and prepare for motherhood. Everything so far has gone absolutely fine. John photographed me holding Amber in her baby sling as she really settles down in it and both of us feel calm and peaceful with it. If things ever start to get a little bit crazy, or we get stressed, getting into the wrap brings a sense of calm and peace.

“John photographed me looking out the window of my home. It’s somewhere I spend quite a lot of time just contemplating, surrounded by the countryside. It’s such a peaceful place to live. There’s a whole bundle of reasons that come together to make that picture a peaceful and safe place for me.

“I have been fine since having Amber and I really think my history of mental illness helped me in the early stages of motherhood. Because there was so much self-awareness, I had put in place the support I needed for what is an enormous change in anybody’s life.

“New mothers are so pushed into the idea of needing to put their babies down in a pram or another room and getting them to sleep while they do something separately that it can be really unhelpful. Keeping your baby close can be really good for both of you. It changes the chemicals in your brain.”

John photographed artist Brett Burnell in woods where she likes to spend time and gain a sense of peace.

Brett has “reactive depression”, which can be brought on if she experiences a crisis or difficulty in her life.

“I’ve probably had it off and on since the age of 10, although I didn’t know what it was then,” she says. “I just felt unhappy.

“I find I just feel at peace in woodlands. It just feels as if it is what nature intended. I have got two dogs and I love to take them to Orwell Country Park and Nacton shores.”

Brett is involved with two projects which use art therapeutically for those suffering mental ill health.

“The frequency of my depression really depends on what is going on in my life,” she says. “I have been having a pretty awful time over the last few months. Being involved in the arts and mental health programmes and meeting all the people there has been a Godsend. Getting out of the house really helps. If you are shut in your home your depression feeds on that and you become introspective. You need something to break that.

“I just hope that the My Safe Place photographic project helps to get people talking about depression and helps end any taboo that still exists.”

John, who lives in Ipswich with his wife and children, is still looking for people to photograph for the project.

“I got the idea for the My Safe Place project through speaking with Helen Oldfield and Chaz, who told me about his ‘safe place’ on the beach,” he says.

“I hope the photographs will highlight depression and encourage others to step forward and seek help. I want the project to cover the whole spectrum of the condition and am looking to recruit more people to take part.”

In the last two decades, John has travelled the globe, taking pictures of some of the world’s most iconic celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Pele and Madonna.

Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally opened one of his exhibitions, praising his talent and credentials as a role model.

He has also covered conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, along with poverty in America, famine, the spread of HIV-Aids in the African sub-continent and spent six months in Rwanda, covering the 10th anniversary of the genocide there.

John started his photographic career in the early 1980s, working for a Fleet Street press agency, first as a darkroom boy, then printer, trainee photographer and, finally, staff photographer.

He left the agency to go freelance in the mid-1980s, working for numerous national newspapers and magazines before joining the staff of the Daily Mirror.

He left a few years later to concentrate on his own projects and reporting humanitarian issues around the world, although he still does freelance work for national newspapers, portrait photography and commercial work.

Anyone interested in finding out more about My Safe Place or who is interested in being photographed for the project should visit John’s website at www.johnferguson.co.uk or email him on jfergie@btinternet.com

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