Daniel Regan is a photographer, artist, and director of the Free Space Gallery in London. Regan’s work—which includes a series of abandoned asylums in the UK, portraits of individuals with alopecia, and closeups of flowers and plants as a representation of loss and grief—deals in the visualization of human emotion. “The thread of intimacy and the desire to connect with both others and myself weaves its way throughout my practice,” he writes. Fragmentary, a series completed in 2015, depicts Regan’s history with mental health practitioners. The series is based on Regan’s medical records, which he requested in 2012 and matched to self-portraits he made in the same period he was undergoing analysis and treatment. The work was exhibited along with an installation at the Kentish Town Health Centre building in London and received multiple awards in 2016.
After finishing his masters in photography at London College of Communication, Regan organized fragmentary.org, a website to showcase and bring together other artists whose work deals primarily with mental health: psychology, therapy, and human experience. Featured artists’ work, says Regan, spans issues from “the impact of Lyme Disease to the thoughts of the suicidal and loss through miscarriage. I am always impressed,” he says, “with how people are using photography and art to understand and unpick their experiences.”
Fragmentary is a series that combines self-portrait photographs with your mental health medical records, which you requested after years of misdiagnoses and confused treatment. When you first read your own records, what was your reaction? What was immediately apparent?
I think what became apparent was just how difficult it is to convey your inner feelings to a stranger. It was dumbfounding to see myself and my most difficult experiences through the eyes of someone else.
I could see a lot of inconsistencies and discrepancies that made me quite angry at first. I felt that the way I was represented on the pages was not how things really were. Or I remembered specific events differently. There were incidents that I felt I remembered very clearly but had been written about in a way that I felt misrepresented me.
I felt a range of overwhelming emotions: sadness, apathy, joy, anger. After a little bit of time passed that anger soon dissipated and I became more focused on interpretation.
What I had thought I explained clearly had been lost in translation to the many clinicians, who had their own ideas of what I was experiencing. I felt that the smaller things such as how I physically ‘presented’ would be used to justify their notes, for example wearing colorful clothing, which I mostly do wear, signified that I must be feeling better, when in actual fact I could have been feeling suicidal.
I don’t think that any of the clinicians intended to misrepresent a situation, it is just what they thought and saw at the time. I understand and respect that it is very hard to understand someone’s inner world. Words can be confusing, actions can be ambiguous, human beings hold back.
The images or portraits you used were taken throughout the years and then matched to the dates of the reports. Have you always maintained a practice of making self-portraits?
When I first started out in photography I was mostly focusing on documenting the world around me as a visual diary. As I took it more seriously, I started to use self-portraits to explore my mental health difficulties. It was an exciting new world that gave me a sense of empowerment. To place myself in the frame meant that the work I was creating was directly about myself, my experiences and my identity. I used photography to explore my body as a self-harmer, my sexuality and the confusion in my mind.
Do you think photography creates a distance that allows for something like a sense of control of circumstances and mental states that otherwise feel beyond control?
For me, understanding my own experiences through storytelling gives me a sense of control and empowerment. Without photography and using it to explore narratives, the world would feel very chaotic. By working through issues, by turning them into visual stories, it helps me to make sense of things. Storytelling helps me to see clearly, to understand and to bring closure.
I often felt that I didn’t have the words to explain what my difficulties were. Photography opened up this incredible world of visual language that is broad and complex but also ambiguous and exciting. Photography has enabled me to explore far more in depth how I feel and what I have experienced than I can do with written language. I’m drawn to colors, shapes, reality distortion and the possibility of interpretations.
How did you land on the idea of matching your portraits with your records?
It came back to this dual perspective of both myself as an artist and the clinicians I would see. I was fascinated at how we could both have such a different understanding of inner torment. Although I do love to write, photography is my primary outlet for emotional documentation. It was fascinating to match up medical records with a self-portrait taken around that same time and to see how we both interpreted those experiences.
How did you start constructing each piece? Do the images reference the state you were in when you took your own portrait, mixed with health professionals’ perception of your symptoms? Or is it an interpretation of how you think you were viewed, based on the records?
The intention of each piece is to encourage the viewer to think about how we see and interpret internal worlds: how do we present to others when inside we may feel differently? How much can we really know about someone’s inner turmoil? I always felt that my photography was very honest. It may be ambiguous, but honest about how I felt. I often wonder if I would have shown my photography to clinicians at that stage if it would have helped bridge a gap between us, as I often felt I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain exactly how I felt. All I had was photographs.
Where did you start, which was the first portrait you worked on in the series?
I think this [above] is the first image that I worked on. This record is quite poignant for me as it’s shortly after I was admitted into hospital and I have a lot of conflicting feelings about it. I was struggling to see how I could use it in the work without so much personal text. I then started to redact certain parts and that’s when the idea to insert the redacted text came into the project, creating these corrupted files. I was interested in how I can combine the redacted clinical texts with my own work, subsequently creating an image that represents both perspectives.
At some point during the creation of the pieces did you have to divorce yourself from the emotional content in order to communicate a sort of derived or intentional narrative to the viewer?
Not until the end. I tend to work on projects very instinctively and without the idea of a viewer in mind. If and when I know I am going to show the work, I then have to be more objective about what works and what doesn’t within the context of external viewers.
You work in both color and black and white, why did you choose the latter for Fragmentary?
I try to approach each of my projects differently as they are all unique. In this project the work is black and white because it relates to this idea of being clinically sterile. The work was printed large with the original medical records kept in that format. The larger installation of medical records were all printed on acetate. There’s something very clinical about the work, combined with an artist’s interpretation that challenges that.
How does the inclusion of the installation change the overall series?
The larger installation was in the Kentish Town Health Centre building in London. The building itself has a lot of natural light and glass and I really wanted to work with this to create something more 3D. There was a larger window that had multiple layers of my medical records printed on acetate, but were obscured in some way. Viewers were invited to try and deconstruct the story, but much like the reality of my experience, they found it difficult to understand what was really happening. Around smaller panes of glass in the building, I also installed my medical records, but too small for people to read. There is this line between oversharing and undersharing throughout the project, with an intention of creating intrigue and misunderstanding.
The exhibition itself sparked a lot of interest and comments. The work was installed in a clinical space and lots of the doctors there cited that patients would use the exhibition as a starting point for their own mental health discussions. The work also won two awards this year.
Can you tell me about Fragmentary.org, the website you run that showcases others whose work deals with mental health?
I chose to do a master’s because I wanted to be back around other creative people, to bounce ideas off of and feel inspired. Once that finished I felt that I didn’t have my own hub of creatives. After the residency, I felt really clearly that I wanted to continue to work around mental health. I was finding it difficult to track down other artists that were specifically working in that field so I figured, why not start my own hub? I began to reach out to artists that I could find and eventually artists started coming to me to have their work featured.
I’m particularly interested in the question you asked Annabella Esposito on fragmentary.org, which is, when did she become more open about her mental health and its appearance in her work? I imagine this is a hurdle for many of the featured artists.
This is such a unique and individual step for each artist. I have always been fairly open about the relationship between my photography and mental health experiences. But I became a lot more open when I did my master’s. I was also undergoing intensive psychotherapy and started to feel that I wasn’t responsible for my difficulties. These are things that happened to me through means beyond my control. I had no shame around who I was or what I had experienced.
The time to be more open is a unique journey for each person. I encourage people to be more open, if they want to, at a time that feels right for them. There is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding out there, which people can be afraid of, yet challenge when they are ready.
I held back a lot of my work for so long because I was making it for myself, it was therapeutic and did not need an audience. When I was ready I then began to share it at a time that worked for me.
I think artists working around mental health can do a great deal to provide insight into their experiences for family and friends.
What are your hopes for Fragmentary.org?
The collection of artists featured on the site shows that so many people are continuing to use art as a way to interpret and work through mental health difficulties. These are the people in the world that can take their work forward and begin to break down stigma in a way that is unique and open to interpretation and discourse with the general public. The site was primarily made for artists looking for other artists working around similar themes, but we mustn’t forget that all of these artists are going out into the world to show and exhibit their work, adding to the growing discussion of mental health and hopefully breaking down some of the existing stigma.
Genevieve G. Walker is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays, poetry, and nonfiction features have appeared in The Pitchfork Review, A Women’s Thing, GQ, Guernica, Tablet, and elsewhere. For the past half-decade she’s been working in magazines, most recently as the editorial operations director at The Players’ Tribune, and before that, as the lead web producer for GQ.