But Is It Ethical?
My new body of work is centred around mental illness, specifically the illnesses of people I know. In order to create the work I am attempting to interpret what my friends are telling me about their lives and living with a mental illness, then transcribing this into a visual, narrative representative.
The images I am creating (and will create) would not exist without my friends talking to me about their experiences, therefore we are collaborating. The very definition of the word collaboration is the act of working with someone to produce something, but in this particular instance, I've found myself scrutinising the moral and ethical implications of the project.
Obviously, the first factor I have to consider is the health of the people collaborating with me. This is something I've thought long and hard about, as even the act of talking about their situation could impact their mental health. As I've stated before, I'm not a trained therapist so the likelihood of me causing harm is a real possibility. To try and avoid this, I decided to speak only with individuals who are, or have been, treated by a qualified medical practitioner. The idea behind this is that the people who are/have been treated will be more stable and less likely to be impacted negatively by the conversations needed to establish how their illnesses affect them.
Over the last eighteen months whist researching this project, I have come across a lot of people who have spoken to me about their own experiences with poor mental health, but I made the decision, early on, to only collaborate with individuals I know very well. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly I feel that by knowing my collaborator extremely well I am more likely to detect if the project is negatively impacting their health, and secondly, there has to be a high level of trust established in order to speak frankly and completely openly, and I'm not sure this can be achieved with people I haven't known for years (this is also partly because of my introverted nature).
Another big ethical consideration I faced arose around the very idea of collaborating. I didn't want to create the work as an outsider looking in. Having battled with my own mental health, it was incredibly important to me that I make something real and genuine, something which depicted not an overview of an issue but the intricacies of personally living with the illness. This meant using the experiences of actual people. But I didn't want to simply 'use' them for information.
To fully explore this project I realised that I wanted the individuals I spoke with to get something out of this project as well, be it catharsis through talking it out, validation, understanding or even just a glimmer of hope, I wanted everyone to gain something positive from this. The project had to give back as much as it took, which in some cases has meant I've head to set aside some of my favourite ideas in order to produce images which better represent the collaborators experiences. Because if this, the ethics have impacted my creativity and challenged me in ways I hadn't been able to foresee at the start of the MA. The ethics that go hand in hand with these collaborations have had such a huge impact that they've shaped the work I'm producing as much as experimenting with the skill of combi-printing - so an awful lot!
Throughout the project I've been mindful of the way the work is being made. Taking into account the notions of Susan Sontag in her essays, Oh Photography and Regarding The Pain OF Others, I'm not 'taking' the photographs, instead my collaborators and I are conceiving, constructing and designing a transcription together. Their experiences, told in their own words are allowing me to build ideas which I'm then relaying back for them to reflect upon. I'm gaining a deeper understanding of their lives and illnesses but also how softly we, as artists, should tread when it comes to such sensitive topics.