Storying Sheffield

In a dark wood: audio


In a dark wood: Words and images of mental distress across a century.

This project was a collaboration between Storying Sheffield, Archive Sheffield, and Sheffield Libraries, and resulted in an exhibition at Bank Street Arts in September 2016. The exhibition explored changing perceptions of mental distress/illness by drawing both on contemporary accounts and on the photographic record of the former Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield.

These large-plate glass negatives, kept in the Sheffield Archives and almost certainly unseen since their deposit offer a powerful window into a different era of medical care. Anonymised images from the turn of the 20th century were presented alongside contemporary audio reflections on the nature of illness/distress and care from people currently living with mental health problems. We hoped that the combination of images and sound represented a kind of dialogue across time, generating insight and provoking thought about differing perceptions of mental health, as well as drawing out resonances.

For the original exhibition text, see below.

Exhibition essay (pdf file)

If you want to understand what it is like to live with mental health difficulties and the support needs of those who do, it is wise to speak with — and listen to — people who have experience of this, learn from their insight and knowledge and act in its light. This hardly seems a controversial thing to say, yet in some contexts such a contention can still provoke resistance, or a lukewarm acquiescence which is at best tokenistic. While the notion of taking seriously and being guided by the voices of experience is becoming more accepted, there is still a long way to go. Indeed, one might write a history of our society’s relationship to ‘mental illness’, distress, and ‘madness’ by tracing the shifts across decades in the degree to which the knowledge of people living with mental health difficulties has been unheard, disregarded or silenced.

The history of photography in mental hospitals is a long one, dating back to the work of Hugh Diamond in the mid-19th century. Diamond was a doctor, a photographer, and the Superintendent of Surrey County Asylum. The practice soon became widespread, and was based on the idea that the photographic image could provide an accurate and scientific insight into ‘insanity’. In Diamond’s influential 1856 paper ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’ he claimed that the use of photography negated the need ‘to use the vague terms which denote a difference in the degree of mental suffering’ and that photographic images indicated ‘the exact point which has been reached in the scale of unhappiness’.

The photographing of patients was predicated on a desire to ameliorate suffering. Nevertheless, what may strike us now is the inadequacy of an approach which focused on surface appearance. As we look at these almost 100 year-old images from the old Middlewood Hospital — formerly the South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum – we might reflect on the stories and voices of those we witness and wonder how many were untold, unheard. These and many other such photographs have been stored in Sheffield Archives along with other records from Middlewood and almost certainly have not been viewed for decades. There is no identifying information included with the images, nor any explanation as to why they were taken.

Today there is still much to do before people with personal experience are routinely recognised as ‘experts’ in mental health. When policy is made in this area, for instance, it is not uncommon to find that the voices of ‘lived experience’ are largely absent from the heart of decisions and debate. However, there are some signs of change. Campaigns, critique, and work over decades by those who live with distress and by sympathetic allies in academia, medicine and elsewhere have helped change practice — at least to some extent — and this continues. Indeed, Sheffield has a long and honourable history of working for a more equitable and socially just approach to mental health. Many people who work in mental health understand and contribute to this agenda, and there are more people working in healthcare who feel able to bring knowledge gleaned from ‘lived experience’ to bear.

The voices you hear in this exhibition are those of Sheffield citizens today from diverse backgrounds speaking about their experiences of distress and support, in conversation with a person (me) who also lives with distress. Several of the people who speak are leading important work in our city to improve understanding and practice and all are people whose insights and understandings demand to be heard. As we listen we might reflect on how much expertise and insight still lies untapped and ignored in the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who are today living with illness and distress, and indeed, on the stories of the past we will never hear.

Archive Sheffield is a group of photographers and filmmakers who specialise in documentary, story-driven work. We are building an ongoing archive of contemporary photographs taken in and about Sheffield, and are working with other archival organisations to present interesting work from the past to a new audience.

Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library collections preserves and makes available information about South Yorkshire from the 12th century to the present.