With suicide the leading killer of British men under 45, a new exhibition grapples with masculinity and mental health
Last year, 4,623 men took their own lives in Britain. That works out to more than 12 deaths a day, and accounts for 76% of the total suicides in the UK in 2014. In fact, suicide is the biggest killer for men under 45 in the UK. These statistics, compiled by mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) are shocking in their clarity and sadly unsurprising in what can be learned from them.
The predominant model of the alpha male; strong, stoic and unfeeling, still persists in popular culture and reinforces a concept of masculinity that is pervasive and insidious – one that doesn’t allow for anxiety, vulnerability or dialogue.
In aid of CALM, five London-based photographers – Scarlet Page, Helena Berg, Jennifer Pattison, Will Morgan and Peter Guenzel – have put on ‘Alpha’ an exhibition that responds to masculinity and mental health. Each photographer interpreted a particular aspect of depression or the male emotional experience to create a complex body of work that begins a much-needed discussion.
Jennifer Pattison focused on her experience of growing up in the shadow of her father’s acute depression, photographing objects he made during his time in occupational therapy. To broach a topic like male depression is difficult enough, but to examine it in your own family might be especially tough. But for Pattison, the intimacy of the project made it more accessible:
“I think I approached this project with less anxiety than I feel about a lot of my projects because the authorship was a shared one; it was a collaboration between my dad and I. The objects were photographed at his house and he got involved when I was shooting them, helping me to decide which object looked best on what background etc. he also titled the work. It has been cathartic for me and has allowed my dad and I to talk about some difficult moments. Mostly it has felt really positive.”
To create the images, Pattison went back into the darkroom for the first time in 16 years to produce contact prints made out of tracing paper negatives, mimicking the hand-made nature of the objects themselves.
“I decided to use this process because I wanted to physically make something with my hands. To experience some of the same benefits my dad did when he was making his objects as part of his occupational therapies. I shoot all my work on film but usually have everything printed at the lab.
“The last time I colour printed was during my degree about 17 years ago. Producing the tracing paper negatives was a very tactile process; I washed them in water and scraped away the ink. screwed them up and made holes in them. It was a totally different way of working, which I really enjoyed; messy and haphazard.”
While Pattison had close ties to this topic, there was still the difficulty of creating an artistic response to an experience of someone else’s pain.
“I had to be extremely sensitive in my approach. I agreed with my father before we started the project that he would have power of veto over how his story was written. It proved to be helpful to have clear boundaries and I believe this protected our relationship.
“I think most art forms are expressions of our interior feelings. I think for some people it’s not really a choice, you only know how to express yourself by creating something. For me making pictures is an essential and therefore effective part of my life.”