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News writing at The National: Project shines a light on mental health darkness (Interview with Tracy Anderson)

So, my week of work experience at The National is over (boo!) and this is my last piece in today’s edition of the paper. I had so much fun putting this article together as I got to interview the lovely and talented Tracy Anderson regarding her photography project ‘The Darkness Within’ which aims to end social stigma against mental illness.

You can read my article in The National – Project shines a light on mental health darkness or read my extended version of the article and interview below:

PHOTOGRAPHER Tracy Anderson was praised yesterday by See Me, Scotland’s programme for ending mental health discrimination, for an imaginative and original project which aims to end mental health stigma.

Anderson, a City of Glasgow College graduate, aims to help those affected by mental illness with her new photography collection The Darkness Within.

Lisa Cohen, See Me’s national programme manager, said: “Creative work such as this helps to tackle stigma by opening mental health up to a new audience.”

She added: “People with mental health problems can face discrimination which limits their lives. This photography tackles stigmatising attitudes, showing the amazing work that people can do. We are always keen to share this type of work as it is vital to empower people who want to use their skills to challenge the stigma around mental health”.

Anderson, 31, who is affected by anxiety and depression, is originally from Glasgow but now lives in Cumbernauld with her husband Thomas and their nine-year-old daughter Kimberly, who is already taking after her mum and showing a keen interest in photography.

Talking about her work, Anderson told The National: “I’ve always been quite creative. At school, art was my favourite subject. I went on to do a Higher in Art and Design at North Glasgow College after I left school. After that, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I moved out and got a job in a lawyer’s office and I put college on the backburner.

“Photography didn’t come in to my life until much later, until I was in my twenties. During that time, I was confined to my house because my anxiety was so bad and I couldn’t work. So I started looking up courses at local colleges since my little girl was starting that year, I thought I’d have some spare time during the day to do something productive and creative. I thought the photography courses sounded really interesting.

“Initially, when I started, I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I felt like quitting so many times. But I just fell in love with photography and pushed myself to do more.

The Darkness Within

“I was 28 when I started at City of Glasgow College. I got in to that college with my NC portfolio and I got into their HND course.

“For my graded unit for first year, I did magnified images of crystals on silk and I had scarves made from my photographs. For that unit, I got an A which I was so proud of! They were in the Kalopsia Gallery and Ocean Terminal exhibition last year in Edinburgh. There was a wide variety of art in the exhibition but they were all textured based and it was great to see my work displayed along with the other pieces.

“I started ‘The Darkness Within’ project in my degree year. The topic itself was so complex so I decided I would have to focus on one specific area so I chose to focus on myself and, for a while, I didn’t think it was a good idea because it sort of made me feel worse because it was so personal. So instead, I went down the route of using metaphors in my photography to portray mental illness in an abstract way. One of the images I took was of the door in my house. The photograph has an unusual texture, almost like a veil, which is like the veil that kept me confined inside. Some of the images are really abstract and obscure, you almost can’t tell what some of the images are of, which I like because it represents how I felt at the time. I knew I felt bad but I didn’t know why, just like in the images, you know something is there but you can quite pinpoint what it is.

“There a quote I really like that goes ‘Rage against the dying of the light’. It’s from a poem by Dylan Thomas called ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ and those words really inspired me. For me, it represents motivation. To always keep your fire burning and never give up.  This is what gave me the idea for the image of fire in my collection. It was taken at Bonfire Night last year at Strathclyde Park with my daughter and when I saw the bonfire, I instantly just thought of that quote and I had to take a picture.

The Darkness Within“One of the other images in my collection is of this twisted tree in the woods. The tree was surrounded by all these other normal trees but this one was distorted and it really stands out because it is so different and that’s how I feel sometimes.

“Another one of my favourites from the project is a photograph I took of the sky at night. I liked this one because I always think, well, stars are beautiful but you can’t see the stars without the darkness.

“In first year, I did a documentary class and the project was “Self” and you could basically do whatever you wanted. One of my ‘Self’ images was a photograph I put together in Photoshop that showed me taking off my mask – which was myself wearing makeup – to reveal my real self with tears and makeup dripping down my face. That’s what used to annoy me because I’d do my makeup and hair and dress nice and people used to say “But you don’t look ill?” And I’d say, “Well, what is mental illness supposed to look like?” Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect anyone.

“I didn’t really touch on mental health against until my degree year when I started ‘The Darkness Within’. We had more creative freedom in that year and I kept thinking back to the ‘Self’ project and wanting to revisit mental health. I wanted to explore the stigma attached to mental illness. Picture wise, I didn’t know what I wanted them to look like so I did loads of research on historical mental illness and how it used to be treated in mental asylums. There was an abandoned asylum local to me called Gartloch so I went to the Mitchell Library to research it. The patients would be treated more like prisoners and criminals. The pictures I found showed orderlies standing over them like prison guards and I just thought, ‘How can they treat them like this? They haven’t done anything wrong. They’re ill!’

“After all that research, I still didn’t really know what I wanted my images to look like but then I found a book called ‘Capturing Mindfulness’ and it’s all about mindfulness through photography. I was drawn to it because my doctor had recommended that I do mindfulness exercises as a way of dealing with my anxiety. It’s always like meditation and I never really took to it but I was interested in the book and it gave me inspiration for what I wanted my images to be like.

“I also found a great website called Broken Light: A Photography Collective that showcases images based on mental illness. Photographers can post their pictures and get feedback and it really means a lot to get such positive feedback because if I can help even one person going through mental health problems with my project, then it’s all been worthwhile.

“I had always been a worrier but that went to the extreme in my twenties and I was finally diagnosed with depression when I was 25. I actually felt much better after getting the diagnosis and almost like a sense of relief that I could finally start to understand how I was feeling.

“When I start a project, I sometimes lack confidence and doubt myself but when I saw all my pictures all finished and in a wee booklet, I felt really proud, especially with the feedback I’ve had, and I’m so glad I did it. I hope my project shows others with mental illness that they’re not alone. I used to isolate myself from my friends and family and I always felt like I was on my own but that’s not the case. Several people with mental health issues have told me that they could really relate to my project which feels amazing. ‘The Darkness Within’ was definitely emotionally draining but overall I am really happy with it. Throughout this project, I jump from one idea to the next, it’s a bit disorganised. But I think this shows how my mind works and it works well with the subject matter of the project. It’s about finding order in chaos.”

Images courtesy of Tracy Anderson.

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