Fighting Stigma With Photography – Sinead McDonald at First Fortnight

James Keating

I’ve been depressed. And I waited far too long to talk about it. #whatstigma

This is what photographer Sinead McDonald is hoping to see, openness about mental health. It would be a tad remiss of me not to be candid about it, considering she’s taken my picture as part of an upcoming exhibition. Her work will be displayed during the First Fortnight Festival, a two week long event of music and art with the aim of getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental health problems in Ireland.

The idea is simple, yet powerful. A series of portraits taken in almost identical circumstances: minimal lighting, a coloured background and a DSLR are the tools, but Sinead says that “it’s not about the pictures, it’s about the person”.

It’s clear when looking at the portraits she’s taken thus far that this is the case. Some captured are smiling, some stoic. The background colour is chosen by the sitter. The resulting photographs turn out to be wonderfully distinct, capturing simply the individual with no pose, and always at a frontal view. Seeing the person straight on, Sinead says, highlights how different they are.

Sinead explained that portraits are what she loves, because they tell a story about the people photographed. They aren’t typical of her usual style – the setup is basic, the shooting quick. It produces an altogether different photograph to what one would expect from a portrait, drawing inspiration from the typological style of Thomas Ruff.

 To add to the narrative the photos create there will also be a textual element alongside the photographic. Each person captured is asked to write a short note, based on the #whatstigma twitter hashtag. The note describes the person’s experience of mental health issues, their feelings on the social stigma attached or both.

Through this combination of visuals and text Sinead hopes to build a typology of mental health which shows that we all have a story to tell about it. According to See Change, the organisation First Fortnight is supporting, one in four people in Ireland will experience a mental health problem during their life. The exhibition will show how disparate individuals are all affected by allowing their differences to take centre stage.

It is somewhat odd to think that a series of portraits taken the same way can highlight difference, but it works extraordinarily well. It also serves to further emphasise that everyone has been affected by mental health issues, whether personally, or through knowing someone who has suffered. Each image tells its own story, and the series is already creating a narrative which extends beyond the exhibition itself.

Sinead explained, “People are already talking about it. Someone from Australia and someone from the Netherlands have told me stories about their own problems. The exhibition is doing what it’s supposed to.” The use of the #whatstigma hashtag should help. It offers visitors to the exhibition encouragement to follow the example of those in the photographs and tweet about their experiences with mental health and stigma.

Of course, sitters didn’t immediately jump at the opportunity to have their image on display, which in its own microcosmic fashion highlights the problem. “At first people were reluctant to take part, but now, after seeing the photos they want to do it.” It seems Sinead has hit upon the right formula, the photos are of people, not their problems.

It takes such a well-intentioned and considered approach to get people to allow their image to be associated with something so stigmatised, but as Sinead puts it “They see they’re not just pictures of ‘crazy’ people”. Her use of the word “crazy” may be in jest, but for many this type of dismissive language is a reality of living with a mental health problem.

See Change work to reduce attitudes like this and have partnered with First Fortnight to raise awareness about stigma and its effects. People with mental health problems find it harder to discuss them or seek help due to the stigma attached. By focusing on the one in four statistic, See Change hope to normalise the issue for those affected.

Like many of her sitters, Sinead has suffered from mental health issues herself, having dealt with post-natal depression. This, coupled with people she knows going through problems of their own, offered the impetus necessary to participate in First Fortnight. It’s not just people who have been directly affected who have taken part either, many simply want to spread the #whatstigma message.

First Fortnight will begin its third event in January, and it is the first time it will be more than a one-day event. Previously there had been a talk on mental health followed by live music. This time the festival will feature more live acts, talks and art over a two week period. Republic of Loose have already featured in a mini-tour of colleges to promote it.

By giving support to See Change, First Fortnight’s organisers hope to give a platform to the group. Sinead’s exhibition is one of many art-based elements of First Fortnight, and her work ties in directly with the goals of See Change. Their aim is to get people talking about how mental health problems can affect anyone, that they’re part of being human.

Through her photography, Sinead is giving those who see her exhibition at First Fortnight a talking point. She plans to take 100 portraits to display alongside each person’s handwritten ‘tweet’. If you’ve been affected personally by mental health problems, through someone you know, or even if you just want to support the event, she’s still looking for sitters.

Sinead can be contacted via e-mail at or on twitter @sineadw

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