Mental health issues are on the rise in the post-16 sector, as Tes reported earlier this month. Depression, anxiety and stress appear to be at a record levels, with advice often focused on exercise, a good diet, talking therapies, medication and simply taking a break.
But can art help?
Art allows space for students to explore their lives and experiences. Art pathways are unique in that each student can devise their own projects in which they must demonstrate skills against which they are assessed. This allows an opportunity for students to explore what is relevant to them in an art context. For many, they choose to explore their health and the issues that affect it, from the personal to the global.
By developing projects alongside research into artists’ work, we can explore their ideas and apply them to our own. This process of researching, contextualising, understanding and applying allows students to use an artist’s method as a template. For my students this year, the photographic artist Jo Spence has been a particular influence.
Self-imaging and photo therapy
Spence was a British artist who used photography not simply as a means to create artworks but as a process to understand experiences that felt out of her control, place herself back at the centre and from that position assert control and make changes. Exploring her work offers students the opportunity to do the same.
Spence began work as a high-street photographer and saw how people presented themselves to camera. Even the most natural of portraits has an element of fakery, if the person being photographed is aware; from a simple smile to the extremes of the studio portrait with hair, make-up and lights, all set to flatter. This Spence called self-imaging.
Through understanding the process of self-imaging, students can start to identify the difference between reality and presentation. Projects in which students honestly document themselves and each other throughout a period of a day or week can help to show how most of us live and look most of the time; a true #nofilter approach. Alternatively, the use of a studio, however basic, can allow students to document “before” and “after” portraits, offering natural and the posed results for analysis. The process being documented can help to expose just how much work goes into the perfect “natural” image.
Both of these allow space for students struggling with personal concerns – regarding body image, status and pressure from their peers – to explore and discuss our image-focused world in terms of process and outcome alongside the reality of everyday life.
Additionally, there is Spence’s most famous concept, photo therapy, which highlights an awareness of the importance of the process of creating. For Spence, photo therapy was linked to empowerment, a form of recovery from her experiences of cancer. Spence described being a patient as a form of infantilisation, and photography as her way of reclaiming control.
Spence felt the power, while the decisions and control in her care lay with the doctors. By photographing her experiences and her changing body, Spence did two things: she repositioned herself back to the centre of the experience, giving her a sense of control, and this sense led to her taking back control and exploring her own possibilities for recovery.
Schools, like hospitals, are institutions built on accumulated knowledge and a hierarchy of power. By asking students to photographically document their experiences, spaces and themselves, it forces them to observe their place of education, both physically (the space), emotionally (the feelings that these images capture) and procedurally (or structurally).
These images can then be discussed and categorised. What have the students chosen to focus on? What are the feelings that these images contain? Which students are showing a clear connection to their place of education and which are producing work that shows they are removed or isolated?
Images created from photographing often-overlooked spaces and moments reveal much about our students’ lives. Spence’s work offers clear contextual considerations that, while powerful, are also accessible in their approach and focus. This makes linking the contextual ideas to students’ own work smooth and relevant, while allowing them to give a highly personal response.
Hannah Day is head of art, media and film at Ludlow College