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Informing Contexts – Work Evaluation – Mental Health Shoot

Figure 1: Mary Ellen Mark. 1978. 300B-055-029

Considering the work of Mary Ellen Mark in her poignant book Ward 81, I set about creating images that consider the plight of the mentally ill.

In 1976 Mark photographed the women in the maximum security wing of the Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon.  For 36 days Mark lived with the women in the hospital.  This enabled her to share experiences with the women.


Figure 1 is an image that she took when one of the women showing Mark what it should look like when you are crazy.  This image got me thinking.  We have perceptions about what we expect to see in a photograph of a person who is mentally ill.  I wanted to portray images that could be real, without being patronising to derogatory in any way.


The low key lighting used by Mark adds to the feeling of madness.  Mark shot many of her portraits for Ward 81 against a white sheet.  Given the circumstances of the shoots, I think that she made a wise choice.  The lighting adds to the overall impression that this has been shot in a hospital or similar.  For my images, I wanted to portray a dark side.  Mental illness can lead to loneliness and isolation, with many people feeling that they are in a dark place.  The intent of my shoot was to cast some light on the plight of such people and to show glimpses of what life might be like for them.  The hope is that the work could start to break down barriers and get the viewer to empathise with the subject.


Figure 2: Sutherst 2017

Figure 3: Sutherst 2017

Figure 4: Sutherst 2017

Figure 5: Sutherst 2017

The studio set up was a single light fitted with a honeycomb grid and a black backdrop.  Post process editing is just cropping and converting to black and white unless stated otherwise.

I chose a monochrome edit for the majority of the images as it allows the viewer to be distanced from the  the subject. We see the world in colour, and a monochromatic image makes us pause and look more closely at the subject. Removing colour from the images encourages the subject to look at the the emotional state of the subject.  I intended the viewer to be able to look at the subject’s face and read her eyes and expression without the distraction of colour.

Choosing a suitable subject to portray the images was a challenge.  I needed to find someone who would perform the character with empathy and sincerity.  I settled on a friend called Kari who was up for the challenge.

Figure 2 shows one of my first edits.  The image is too dark and there is not enough contrast in the photograph.  Although it is meant to be a dark image, it is in desperate need of some white.  I re-edited the image (figure 3) to improve the contrast and this has improved the visual aesthetics. Technically this is now a better image.

Kari is holding two of my old teddies from when I was a child.  One has no ears now and this fits well with the theme.  Kari has had makeup applied to give the impression of bruising and darkness around the eyes.  She is able to contort her face to give the impression that she is tormented.

Compositionally the image is engaging, if a little uncomfortable to view.

Figure 4 is again a little dark and lacking contrast.  There is no true white in the image.  Compositionally the shape that Kari makes with her body and the contortion of her face make this an interesting image to view.  The simple styling of the plain nightgown adds to the feeling that you are looking at a real patient in a mental health ward.

A future edit of this image would be to increase the contrast in the image to add in some white.  But I wouldn’t want to go too far with the change as the image is intentionally dark to portray the loneliness and isolation that mentally ill patients experience.

Figure 5 has been left as a colour image. I considered a black and white edit for this shot, but felt on reflection that I would leave it as a colour image.  I believe the image has great impact as a colour image.  The subject is seen more as a real person and not just an image in a set of documentary style images.   The colours attract the eye of the viewer and draw their eyes immediately into the image.  The facial expression in this image is strong enough, in my opinion, to cope with the colour of the image.  You are compelled to look at her face.  In editing, I also adjusted the image clarity to add to the gritty feel of the image.

The narrative is that the subject is shouting to an unseen person.  The composition is quite intriguing and engaging. As a viewer, the visual weight of the image is her face.  The viewer is directed to wonder what she is saying and to whom.

Her hands look deformed and she is clenching the teddy.  Is she trying to keep the teddy away from the unseen person or is she about to throw it at them?  The answers are not given in the image and the viewer is forced to interpret the scene based on their own experiences and knowledge.

Overall, I am pleased with the images.  I do not feel they are patronising or derogatory to mentally ill people, but that they offer a glimpse into how life might be for them and give the viewer the opportunity to empathise and connect with the subject in a way they may not have experienced before.


Figure 1: Mark, M.E. 1978. 300B-055-029.  AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER – WARD 81 – 911T-000-001. 2017. AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER – WARD 81 – 911T-000-001. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/american%20photographer/911T-000-001.html. [Accessed 06 March 2017].


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