Friday, 11 April 2014

The Somewhere Project: Stella Ducklow"s photo tribute to youth with mental illness

Stella Ducklow uses art to smash society’s stereotypes of mentally ill youth.

Her exhibit, The Somewhere Project, at the NSCC Waterfront Campus Art Gallery, is a series of six medium-format, black and white photographic artworks. Each one juxtaposes a portrait of a young person with a cold institutional image.

“I wanted to break down the idea of what a crazy person is supposed to look like,” Ducklow says in an interview at the gallery.

“When you think of psychiatric hospitalization, you don’t think of Luke.”

Luke is a handsome young man pictured next to bleak, metal hospital bedroom doors.

Ducklow says she would have pictured “crazy people” as stereotypes like the patients in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“That’s what I would have thought 10 years ago, but I was very thoroughly schooled.”

She was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder when she was a teenager, and was artist-in-residence for the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health from 2010 to 2013.

“My story has been told a hundred times,” says the Halifax-born artist, who studies in Toronto.

“This is about the community and what hundreds of young people in Canada will be and are experiencing. They are the mirror, they’re making us look at ourselves.

“I want people to think about who they are condemning when they condemn people with mental health issues.”

The show is called The Somewhere Project because society tends to think people who are sick, disruptive or different should be “put somewhere.”

That is “not effective treatment,” says Ducklow. “We have a real lack of effective treatment.”

Her images from psychiatric hospitals include rooms like prison cells, harsh signs, a pay phone off the hook and an outdoor, urban concrete bench.

“When you’re in a place like that, you’re not in a learning space.”

In-patient units “can be helpful spaces,” she says, but “it’s not where people are treated, it’s where people are held.

“The people working in the system are working very, very hard. They do not have the resources. There are a lot of people getting burnt out.

“I’d like to see more things like Laing House, which is peer support-focused and is one of the best things I’ve seen for youth and teen mental health.”

For the last two years, Ducklow and Ardath Whynacht organized a monthly coffee house, Youth Against Stigma, at Just Us Cafe.

“We had youth come out and talk about the stigma, and for one hour a month they had a safe place. Sometimes 50, 60 people came; we packed that place. Almost all were under 30.”

Ducklow’s portraits are of young people, up to age 32, who have spent time in the hospital.

“A lot of them are my friends. Two of them, I met through treatment. A lot I met through my work in advocacy.”

She set up a studio in her living room for the stark pictures.

“It was a throwback to Richard Avedon and In The American West. I wanted the very white background, and I wanted a sense of beauty and strength and overcoming a struggle.

“I wanted to bring the human element to the institutional space.”

The larger-than-life figures are photographed from the shoulders up and wear no distinguishing clothing. Ducklow didn’t want to label them in any way.

They look directly and seriously at the viewer. Ducklow purposefully put the catch light — the sparkle on a shiny object — in their eyes so there is a window-to-the-soul effect.

She used a Pentax 645 medium-format film camera for the project, wanting to challenge herself in film.

“I’m a thousand times more careful (with film) and I wanted this to be more contemplative, to think about the lens and composition.”

She loves to see the black edges of the negative in her prints.

“I feel it makes it more real and has a film strip effect.”

Ducklow is finishing up credits at Ryerson in Toronto for her NSCAD University bachelor of fine arts.

“I love photography, it’s where my home is.”

Being artist-in-residence was “life-changing,” she says. “It made the experiences I have that are normally socially isolating and make it hard to relate to me an advantage. It was like finding this useful part of all those experiences.”

Her early work had no people in it and was about isolation.

“This is more about trying to come together in a community to work for change.”

Well-known in Nova Scotia as a speaker and advocate, she is enjoying the anonymity of Toronto. “I want to be known as a photographer, not a person who’s lived through mental illness. It’s not how I define myself. I want to be known for my education and talents and not for being quote-unquote inspiring.”

It’s the first time the gallery space at the community college campus is being used.

“We have all the students walking through and that will start the conversation, and the NSCC was super awesome and supportive.

“It’s a great place to start.”

The Somewhere Project: Stella Ducklow"s photo tribute to youth with mental illness

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