We spoke to artist and creative Marie Smith about why she created Whispering for Help, a project seeking to document women of colour's lived experiences with their mental health and wellbeing.
“This is a self-portrait taken in Summer 2019, this photograph (above) was a test image for the series Whispering for help. I had spent a year thinking and processing my mental health journey and I had started a series in March 2019 called The fog has lifted slightly and I can think clearer. This series documented my struggles whilst I came off anti-depressant medication, I was determined not to go back onto medication after spending years on them. I felt that there was a space for women of colour voices and experiences to be heard, I also felt that women of colour were often treated as a monolith and there was a lack of nuance to our experiences.
Unfortunately, Black women of Afro-Caribbean and African descent feature disproportionately high in mental health services, as they are more likely to have their first experience with mental health professionals at a point of crisis, which leads to more Black women being sectioned. Statistics show that Black women of Afro-Caribbean and African descent face discrimination and racism within NHS and mental health services and this can also be exacerbated by class, gender, social and economic situation. I also had to consider the experience of those from LGBTQI+ community who would face even further isolation as they are part or a marginalised community.
I began to think about what community I belonged to and I wanted to reach out and meet other women of colour to understand and hear about their experiences. I also felt that it was important for me to see this process as a way to expand on my skills as photographer and communicator. I think that it’s important to be honest about your intentions and outcomes, to be sensitive and also empathetic as the power dynamic between photographer and participant is skewed and has historically seen women of colour being subjugated, their agency being erased or used to exploit and reinforce troupes and stereotypes about them. I was not about to repeat or reinforce this methodology.
The starting point was to read more and write a project proposal and do a test shoot on myself, this helped me to create a coherent idea that allowed me to explain and show potential sitters what I wanted to do. The test portraits were done in my garden and my text reflects upon the process of my hair as a form of self-care, mental health and wellbeing. I use this example to send to each women who participates, along with the project proposal and some questions as prompts for their handwritten testimony. These questions are merely prompts and can be disregarded. I decided not to include the images of myself as part of the final series as I didn’t want the series to be about myself, but I felt it was important to give an example and to provide an idea to the participants on what they expect.
I also decided to include the hand written testimony’s, as my photograph can only allude to so much and I thought that this would also allow the women to have agency over how they were going to be represented.
This is how I conceived Whispering for Help. I believe that being open and making work about my mental health has made it easier for me to connect with the women that I have photographed for the series."