The sock-drawers of my consciousness - My journey with theraputic photography

Warning! This post contains some explicit honesty and references to suicide.

In 2003 I was sleeping in the doorway of HSBC bank in King Street, Hammersmith. It was a good doorway as doorways go. It had automatic doors which closed and kept the draft out when people weren’t using the cashpoints. I mostly got left alone until a security guard would wake me up and move me along at about 6am.

By 2006 I was embarking on a degree in fine art at Byam Shaw school of art (by then part of Central St Martins). I started by decapitating dolls and soft toys and creating nightmarish baby mobiles (like most 1st year fine art students I would imagine). I had no idea what I was doing or why. Whilst photographing these I began to understand the significance of some of the objects I was using and why I was drawn to them.

There was a rear bicycle light which I was using to illuminate "the work”. This had reminded me of a shrine to another homeless guy, Eddie which consisted of a photo of him and some plastic flowers illuminated by a rear bike light and left on the ground of an alleyway that led to the homeless hostel where we both resided at the time. The image of that humble but powerful gesture had really moved me and stayed with me. Once out of my subconscious, I could recreate that shrine (albeit in the gallery of the college) and process a small amount of the grief and trauma which I’d obliterated with White Ace cider and crack cocaine for a long time.

By the second year I was using photography, film and sound to explore other memories that were shoved in the back of the sock-drawers of my consciousness.

My childhood obsession with and terror of being burnt to a crisp in a thermonuclear war were explored through films made of footage drawn together from the early 80s, a culture saturated with mushroom clouds and 3 minute warnings, in a makeshift bunker in a gallery in Battersea.

For my degree show I attempted to untangle and process some of my guilt and grief around my friend’s suicide when we were barely in our 20s, by photographing from the upper-floor windows of tower blocks and projecting them on to the walls of darkened rooms.

On the first day I became street homeless, I went to Ealing Broadway Station with the purpose of jumping in front an Intercity 125 train. I spent the whole day there but each time a train approached, I was held back by a very strong and frustrating life-force which wanted to keep me alive against my will. In the end I gave up, walked into Marks & Spencers and shoplifted a bottle of Vodka instead.

About 4 years later, I returned to the platform and the memory to photograph the trains and to record the sounds of them tearing through the station and some sadness and pain was shifted.

My anger and resentment over my Dad’s death in police custody and the impact of his addiction and mental health struggles on my childhood were explored through retracing the footsteps of his final walk and photographing the pavements, puddles and fallen leaves along the way. This helped me to find a level of acceptance of and empathy for this lost young man and his situation that I'd never managed to find in the 35 years since his death.

I have often described my own experience of mental illness as like witnessing life happening on the other side of a glass barrier. For the last few years I’ve been obsessively photographing objects and people through windows as a way to try and represent and heal that disconnection.

Most recently, I began making a series of photos as a response to our forced disconnection from friends, family and loved ones. When my family were quarantined, we had a few window visits from friends dropping off shopping. These were surprisingly emotional encounters, especially for our youngest, Tommy who had no concept of the virus or why his friends couldn’t come in. I began visiting my friends and loved ones during my daily cycle, photographing them through their front windows. In these times of distancing and disconnection, making these became incredibly important for my own mental wellbeing. This series is my way of trying to represent and diminish isolation while creating some safe connection with people I love and care about.

Why am I telling you all this? I've been thinking a lot about what it is I should really be doing with the remainder of my life (lockdown has been good for that) and if I could help some other people to use photography as a tool to process and heal trauma, I think I'd be somewhere on the right track. So, I'm essentially telling the universe that I finally think I know what I want to be when I grow up. Thanks for reading.

Jon x

© 2020 Jon Rees