A drop in the ocean: Daniel Regan

10 January 2017

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum

This post is from Daniel Regan, a photographer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition late last year.

I began feeling that something wasn’t quite right in my early teens. Looking back on it now I remember thinking that my thoughts seemed jumbled, tangled and different from my peers. My emotional experiences were felt so deeply; my responses were not the same as those around me at that age. As I got further into my teens, I withdrew into myself and began to self-harm. I could never quite figure out how to make sense of the chaos in my mind, but then I discovered photography, which helped me begin to express the brief moments of clarity.

By the time I was in my late teens I was relying heavily on photography to manage my emotions and engage in the world around me. It became both a way of cautiously expressing my difficulties whilst also being a physical barrier between me and those around me. Realising the impact photography was having on my life, and coping strategies, I decided to pursue a photography degree. During those years I struggled immensely.

Insula photo series

My experience with mental health services was dire: bouncing from one service to the next, being repeatedly misdiagnosed and eventually ending up in a psychiatric hospital. During that stay I remember the immense need to document the experience. Photography was a way of unpicking the mess I was in, in the absence of words.

After my first hospitalisation I began to explore the many abandoned mental asylums across the UK. These enormous and dilapidated shells both haunted and intrigued me. On each visit, I photographed that which had been left behind, curious about the lives of those that previously inhabited these spaces. As I wandered the haunting halls I often reflected on my own treatment and how our attitudes towards mental health have changed and evolved, albeit slowly.

Accessing treatment took a long time for me and wasn’t easy: I had to move cities, I was denied treatment for being “out of borough” and there were extremely long wait times. After a decade, I finally got a diagnosis that meant nothing to me (except that I would get access to – hopefully – the right treatment). Throughout these long waits, I turned to photography to stay grounded.

Abandoned photo series

Photography for me has always been about documenting that which is around me, from the lightness and beauty of the world to the darkness and difficult. Carrying a camera with me means I’m able to capture the small and subtle beauty of my surroundings: a winter’s frost, slithers of morning light, the scars I bear on my skin; it allows me to appreciate the minutiae of living. I keep these images on a blog in a form of digital diary keeping, helping me maintain order and organisation in a world that can often feel chaotic.

In 2012 I decided to complete an MA in Photography. After leaving Brighton, I requested a copy of my mental health medical records and felt the need to work through them using my photography. The records were both upsetting and angering, but also humorous. I became aware of just how difficult it can be to accurately understand individual mental health issues. I often felt that I had been misunderstood by the clinician; I wondered how during those sessions so much had become lost in the space between us.

Whilst studying for my masters I finally got access to 18 months of intensive psychotherapy. Although it was stressful, these two undertakings went hand in hand. The more I used photography to explore my feelings, the more I felt I could uncover in therapy and vice versa. In my work I examined my feelings of living with mental illness as a second skin. I physically wallpapered my body in my medical records, tearing them from my body and removing patches of skin and hair. I compared my own self-portraits with clinical records made at the same time, questioning the dual perspectives of myself as a service user and as the clinician. Working on these projects gave me a sense of closure as I slowly started to recover and feel more stable. What had been internally turbulent slowly began to feel calmer and resolved.

Fragmentary photo series

Nowadays I also run therapeutic photography projects and workshops, teaching others how we can use the arts to improve our well-being. Photography has changed how I see the world and I enjoy helping others with difficulties learn to see the world differently too.

Daniel Regan is a photographer and artist based in London, working on themes of mental health and wellbeing. He is the current director of the Free Space Gallery and Kentish Town Improvement Fund, a charity providing arts activities and therapies across two NHS sites in north London.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.