How photography is helping youngsters' mental health in the wake of COVID

·4 min read
Teenager Fawziya Haji holds up a self-portrait, a stark black and white image of half her face with the words ‘Rethink Reskill Reboot’ daubed in ink on her cheek. (Supplied)
Teenager Fawziya Haji holds up a self-portrait, a stark black and white image of half her face with the words ‘Rethink Reskill Reboot’ daubed in ink on her cheek. (Supplied)

Teenager Fawziya Haji holds up a self-portrait, a stark black and white image of half her face with the words ‘Rethink Reskill Reboot’ daubed in ink on her cheek.

"My photograph is called Unemployable," says the 15-year-old from West London. "I took it with my iPhone and a ring-light up in my room and I did some research into the government campaign about having creatives Rethink, Reskill and Reboot. I thought it would be a good idea to express how I felt about that scheme exactly, in a very simple yet very hard-hitting way. [It is black and white because] I wanted to convey how I would feel without the arts. It’s a big part of my identity and that contributes to why half of my face is missing."

Fawziya’s shot was just one of 22,000 images taken by young people last year during the pandemic as part of ‘Show and Tell’, a project designed to help young people express their feelings and emotions around mental health. 

Created by non-profit organisation the Photography Movement and innovation consultants CONSTANCE, it included inspirational workshops led by world-class photographers such as Rankin and was praised by both students and teachers alike.

"Photography really can be the best catalyst to get a young person talking,’ says Robin Warren, Executive Head Teacher of The Blossom Federation of schools in East London. 

"We took part in the project last year and it was a really good thing for pupils to be part of, particularly the ones who were less confident. There was a child who was a selective mute who truly came alive with this project."

The Show and Tell project is launching for a second year. (Supplied)
The Show and Tell project is launching for a second year. (Supplied)

Now the Show and Tell project is launching for a second year, encouraging 10-18 year-olds to pick up their smartphones and discover ‘Photography for Life, not Likes’. 

Four more expert workshops covering themes of ‘Street’, ‘Nature’, ‘Beauty’ and ‘Sport’ will be available online for youngsters to learn tips and techniques and the project will lead towards a youth-led exhibition in 2022. Already 180 schools have signed up for the project and it’s hoped that over 100,000 children will get involved. The brief they are asked to fulfil is the same as last year – How Are You Feeling?

"We did debate about changing the brief but decided that because this project is all about youngsters being able to express their emotions we need to keep asking that same question," says Programme Director Nicole Elias. "Also we devised our new slogan ‘Photography for Life not Likes’ because we know that young people are suffering because of social media. The need to get more ‘likes’ creates unhealthy and unattainable ideas of beauty and putting us in an ‘echo chamber’ that's destroying honesty and creative freedom."

This week (21 Sept) it was revealed that children struggling with mental health problems are facing ‘agonisingly’ long waits for treatment. Data from half of England’s services found one in five seen in the past year, waited over twelve weeks for care and doctors have reported distressed children ending up at A&E as they had nowhere else to go.

Fawziya Haji's self-portrait. (Supplied)
Fawziya Haji's self-portrait. (Supplied)

While the project is not meant as a cure to the current crisis, reviews about Show and Tell testify to its deeply positive effect on young people, boosting their self-esteem and confidence.

Clinical psychologist Lizz Lewis, who has contributed to the workshops, agrees: "As human beings we have an innate need to express ourselves, especially when it comes to difficult experiences or problems with our mental health," she says. "Being creative with photography is one way to feel empowered about telling our stories and reconstructing our sense of self in the world."

Experts involved in the new project include sports photographer Jane Stockdale, nature photographer Casey Moore and fashion photographer Danny Kasirye, who has shot covers for GQ, Elle and Stylist. Danny leads the ‘Beauty’ workshop at the Avenues Youth Centre in London in which he helps youngsters create their own magazine cover. One of them is Fawziya, whose bleak black and white ‘Unemployable’ picture stole the show last year. This time, Danny shoots her in a blaze of bright colours.

"It’s such a contrast with my first photo which shed light on a lot of uncertainty and not knowing what to look for,’ says an excited Fawziya when she sees her cover for the first time. ‘But this one shows a more comfortable and more positive outlook towards the future – it’s a nice little difference between the two and very exciting to look at!"

For more information about Show and Tell and their free teaching resources, go to www.thephotographymovement.com/project/show-and-tell.

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