Sunday, 30 October 2011

A reader's comment

"Aint no such thing" by JonMWells

Following my post on schizophrenia a deviantArt member JonMWells left this moving comment, which I reproduce in its entirety.

"My brother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when he was in his early thirties but I think the very first time he showed signs that something wasn't right was long before that as he was becoming a teenager and it only got worse as time went by. So as you can see this was somewhat late in coming and did little to improve the quality of his life over the years. Psychiatrists would prescribe meds and he'd do one of two things. He would either abuse his meds taking them to get high (keep in mind this was over thirty years ago) or he would throw them out and self medicate with illegal drugs or what he liked to call natural treatments including Marijuana, Peyote, Psilocybin and others. As the years have gone by he's mellowed somewhat but he still smokes his pot every day despite the fact that he has lung and throat cancer and it does nothing to really help him.

He has his good days when he remembers I am his brother and would never do anything to harm him and he may even call his Mother Mom. We may spend time fishing together and talking. One particular piece of my art is based on one of those conversations as fantastic as it was (see above and also here). It is a conversation that I hold dear in my memory and I hope never to forget.

On a bad day he thinks his Mother is someone else and I won't name her here. He thinks I'm out to get him or even kill him. He hides himself away and does terrible things to himself cutting, burning himself, destroying himself in new and more horrible ways each day until his Doctors have to step in. I've lost count of the number of times he's tried to kill himself.

This is my own experience with schizophrenia. I Love my brother and I miss the days when we could spend time together and I wouldn't have to worry about him. As his close family members it is unforgivable that we were never allowed to have anything to do with his treatment so I have no idea the true horror he's lived. I do know that because of his condition he's been stepped on, persecuted, and over the years misdiagnosed. He's been put in jail, blamed for things he couldn't possibly do, and avoided by many of his own family members. His has been a frightening and lonely existence, one that on his good days he'd never wish on another human being and never even on his bad days. His life will soon be over. He gets worse as his health deteriorates so no one can get near him. I think of him every day and I wish him well but I can only hope he'll be put in the hospital so he won't be alone when his time comes and I hope maybe I can see him one more time on, a good day."

There is no need for me to say any more. The story is self explanatory...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

One hundred years of schizophrenia

Photographer: me Model: me
I am in the midst of preparing my presentation on schizophrenia. It's part of my assessment for my course, we are doing a module on psychopathology. I dont know how I ended up choosing schizophrenia as a topic, it was one of those things, choose a psychosis and there I was volunteering for schizophrenia.
Today The Guardian published an article on schizophrenia and opened up a discussion about the illness. It is heart rending to read that attitudes to schizophrenia have not really changed since 1911. Life for people with the illness is still stuck in the middle ages, says the author of the piece, Rachel Whitehead.
Is schizophrenia a biological illness? Are 'schizos' dangerous? Is medication the only cure? Indeed is there a cure for schizophrenia?
Contrary to popular belief psychiatry is not an exact science. So psychiatric evaluations of schizophrenia should be questioned. Central to psychiatry is the notion that the different disorders it investigates are classes of disturbances of the mind and deviations from normality. The pathologies are categorized and symptoms are described in detail (through the DSM, an ongoing project periodically reviewed) and diagnoses are provided on the basis of such classifications.

Psychiatry has been subject to severe critiques by insiders i.e. psychiatrists themselves who are dissatisfied with the current models, as also outsiders. The current dominant model of psychiatry is a biological one, linking up psychiatry with neuroscience, and locating the mind in the brain. Therefore mental illness is viewed as a disease of the brain, something which has a physical cause and which can be cured when the appropriate medication is identified.  Not so simple. The biological nature of schizophrenia has not been proven.
Schizophrenia is  a condition that is profoundly misunderstood and often vilified by the popular press. In general people think of  schizophrenia as inducing a split personality of the Jeckyll and Hyde variety and schizophrenics are viewed as violent murderers. Yet schizophrenia has nothing to do with personality split: there is a split, but that is in the perception of reality. It is equally a fallacy that schizophrenics are violent murderers or that they are developmentally retarded, and with low intelligence. 
Photographer: Steven Beard. Model: me

The term schizophrenia has now been used for exactly a hundred years. An unhappy birthday, says Rachel. Rethink Mental Illness will be launching a campaign on Tuesday asking people to send a clear message to government that people with schizophrenia deserve a better deal in every area of their lives

I was intrigued by the comments left by readers. One of them, Veravera, wrote:

"Schizophrenia is essentially a socially created illness so medication is not the answer. Rather than simply sectioning people and loading them up with medication we need to look at the underlying issues. The problem is that the way we treat mental health issues in this country is based around short term interventions and an obsession with risk. However, with the cuts I can't see things changing. It is not the people that are bonkers rather than that the system is bonkers."


(The photo by Neil Huxtable was taken in a disused mental asylum in Surrey)

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Dancing at full moon

It is the highlight of the month. A gathering of women, from all walks of life, dancing non-stop for two hours at the time of the full moon. The moon is a very important influence on women's psyche and also biology, according to traditional Chinese medicine, and marking the full moon phase with a celebratory dance is a powerful age old ritual, performed in many cultures around the world and now performed in a contemporary urban setting in the west.
It is heartening to see  more and more women taking part in this ritual.
I go to these gatherings on a regular basis and truly love them. I always look forward to them. As the doors open, women of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, pour in. We quickly  take our work clothes off  and change into something comfortable, we warm up and we dance.  We sweat, we bond. No men are around and the energy is totally different. We dance because we want to.  The facilitator of these sessions is a Five Rhythms practitioner and together we weave the evening's magic.
I go to the full moon celebration held in Vauxhall, in South London.  I know the women who go there, I have danced with them many times already. I dont necessarily know their names or what they do when they do not dance. But  having been with them, dancing to our heart's content,  dancing till we feel tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, laughing together and holding hands, I know our embodied relationship is strong. Every time I go, I recognise them and when we dance we continue the conversation we have started, non-verbally. It is absolutely wonderful.
The venue where the dance takes place  is a church which usually hosts dance and music events. I also go there for  ecstatic dance sessions with live music, which are events open to both sexes. I love these sessions too, I love the mix of dance with active meditation. I used to be 'banned' from attending these particular gatherings, I unfortunately had a fall out with one of the drummers and for many months he stopped me from going, not hesitating to use intimidatory tactics (not in tune with the community spirit of the events he played for, but human beings are full of contradictions and some are more enlightened than others). It was a ludicruous situation, yet it caused me much distress.  But he abruptly left over a month ago (never underestimate the power of my curses, I say), so I was free to rejoin  the dancers, which I promptly did, the moment I heard he had gone, wishing strongly he should never come back.

As I said, the energy has a different feel and is  more special, when all the women gather  to be with other women.
Dance is a prominent activity in my life at the moment, more than it's ever been in a long time. I have started my movement based clinical practice again, working this time with adults suffering from chronic mental illness - I am in my second year of my course now. I have also, in my spare time,  joined contemporary technique classes as  I felt the need to practise some structured movement for myself.
The last year has been amazing for me, as it afforded me an opportunity to rediscover the body, my body,  and its power of expression. I have become more aware of the importance of emotion and how this can impact our  state of being. I have learnt about distinguishing between emotional pain and chronic dysfunctional bad feelings, between overcontrolled anger and underregulated rage, more mindful of  every change and shift  in the people around me as also within me.
I  regard myself as fortunate for being able to access this information and find strategies to apply this knowledge in my everyday life. Dance and expression through the body has been  the tool  that has enabled me to tap into the energy of emotion.
Dance is therapeutic. Just reiterating it, in case you did not know.

( Photo by Caroline Michael , modelled by Alex B. )

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The beauty of women

I would like to reprise here a feature I have written for Univers d'Artistes (UdA) about photographer Jane Lancashire, from Tunbridge Wells.
I have admired Jane's photography ever since I first saw her work. I particularly wanted her to be featured in UdA because what she does stretches the concept of fine art nude and takes it to a different level.  We are so used to seeing and hearing about 'fine art nude models' and I am myself one. Jane works with women who do not wish to be models. I have a long interview with her and am publishing it here and for once in my blog I am using photos that are not of me. This post should be read in conjunction with the one in UdA.

"Over the last six years" says Jane "I have found myself regularly becoming an unknown woman's "new best friend" for the day. I'm a photographer, specialising in taking photographs of normal women like myself in the nude. My mission is to help re-balance many women's negative body image, by reminding them of all the other aspects of their body that are pretty spectacular.

How easy it is to forget the good bits we have, and to define ourselves only by the bits that we'd love to change. When the media force-feeds us a barrage of exceptionally slim and beautiful airbrushed people every day, negative body image can become a sad inevitability of life and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep things in perspective. And it doesn't help that we are all used to seeing our bodies from highly unflattering angles, such as when we are trying on clothes in a brightly-lit changing room.
For centuries, artists have celebrated the natural curves of the feminine form of all sizes.  I offer ordinary women the chance to become a piece of art that they can hang on the wall to remind themselves how beautiful they are. I show ladies their bodies from a different perspective by focusing on a shape or angle that they don't normally see. As soon as we sit up, stand or twist round, our bodies create beautiful and often very flattering shapes. Shapes that will show off forgotten legs, stunning curves, elegant feet and hands, shapely backs, long lean necks and so on. My work attempts to show women aspects of their body from unusual angles and positions giving them that much needed reminder of how gorgeous they are.

My ladies come to me for many reasons but the two most common are the "Pick-Me-Ups" and the "Celebrations". The "Pick-Me-Ups" include ladies that have been through messy divorces and other emotional hardships and are really feeling at rock bottom. These ladies often realise that they need to re-build their self esteem before they can move on. After seeing themselves for years in the context of a failing relationship, it is highly therapeutic to leave behind this negative image and see themselves through new eyes. Many other women come to me as they wish to present the photos to a loved one as a surprise wedding, valentine, anniversary, birthday or Christmas gift. Having run out of original ideas, they know that this will really put a smile on their partner's face! I have worked with women aged from 18 to 80 and nearly all of them have said that their partners would never believe they had the courage to strip off in front of the camera! But they do - giving their partner a beautiful and uniquely romantic present that is guaranteed to make him smile.
Ladies also come to treat themselves to mark milestone birthdays (30, 40, 50, 60, etc) or important journeys through life, eg. recovering from breast cancer or operations that may have left permanent scarring and/or significant weight loss. This often seems to bring a exhilarating sense of empowerment, a 'coming-to-terms' and acceptance of who they are.

One lady had lost five stone over three years and needed the new images to help her accept this new shape. She told me it took months to believe and accept this was really her - as the former image of a much larger her was so firmly etched into her mind.
Another client came to see me after putting weight back on! She had initially lost three stone to conform to society's stereotype of the 'perfect' woman, but couldn't reconcile this new slim body with who she felt she was. She put the weight back on and came to celebrate feeling comfortable in her own skin once more - back at healthy size 16.
Being a naturally pear-shaped woman myself, I try to imagine that every client is me, taking only angles I would be happy with seeing myself. I know exactly which bits to hide with strategic swathes of fabric, clever angles or a bit of stretching! Sometimes I re-create famous photos, paintings or even CD covers that my clients bring me - where they become the main subject. Plus I know a fabulous body artist who can give my clients the experience of looking like they're on the front cover of Vanity Fair! All this is enormous fun and again gives everyday women the chance to see themselves as stunning models.
The only things I ever airbrush are bruises and spots, as these are only temporary. I never alter the actual shape of anyone, as that would defeat the whole point - celebrating real-life beauty. I play with light and colour in my designs but the shapes are always genuine.
To date, all of my clients have been truly delighted. I have had many tears and cuddles when women see the results and many have said that it is a life-enhancing experience (as well as a hugely enjoyable day to tell all their friends about). One lady remarked that she holds even herself better and walks taller having seen the photos of herself"

Photogapher: Alex B. Model: Enkopte

I love Jane's work and totally endorse her philosophy. I became a model late in life and that was the result of me feeling more and more confident about myself. But I have always maintained that all women are beautiful and they can be beautiful models. 

The fine art nude as a photographic genre is dominated by male photographers, very often middle aged, projecting their vision of beauty and their fantasies and thus only interested in photographing young women with a particular body type. Male nudes are not so frequent - unless the photographer happens to be gay. I have recently taken up photography and am particularly interested in working with male models, to redress the balance. 
But the work Jane does is fantastic. It truly has the potential of redefining the nude in photography. I admire Jane's nudes as much as I admire nudes posed by conventional models. 
And I  support the women that have taken the plunge and decided to take their clothes off, to show off their beauty. 

(All photos unless otherwise stated are by Jane Lancashire. The women who posed for them wish to remain anonymous)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Welcome to stardom, Amanda

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have been acquitted. For the past couple of days all papers have showed photos of a very happy Amanda boarding her flight to Seattle, going home after spending four years in an Italian jail. Supporters of Amanda are jubilant about the acquittal, the family of Meredith Kercher, the British girl so brutally murdered - she had forty seven knife wounds on her body -  are stunned and they are yet to know the truth about how their beloved girl died, whereas those who believe Amanda and Raffaele are guilty claim that the acquittal was a political decision to satisfy US demands. That the investigation was flawed is a fact and on that basis alone the Italian court had to acquit the pair.  Yet  Amanda will always be known as the woman who probably helped to kill Meredith. That doubt will never be cleared, she is marked for the rest of her life. Comparisons with OJ Simpson come to mind: he played the race card, evidence was inadequate and he was acquitted. But in people's minds, even after all these years  he still remains a murderer, one who got away.

Photographer: Martin Robinson
Many murderers actually do escape prison sentencing by a hair breadth, often because their guilt cannot be conclusively proven. Yet what they have done stays with them, it will be forever on their conscience and will mark them , one way or another and it will affect their relationships with others. 
Can you love, respect and trust someone who has killed another human being in cold blood and managed to get away with it? Most people will  answer no to this question. Can you respect someone who knows about someone else committing a murder  and yet prefers to keep quiet about it?
 Someone knows something but has said nothing.
Amanda is officially innocent. She knows more than she cares to admit but has been totally exonerated. The Kerchers will continue their heroic fight for  the truth about Meredith but noone will ever really know what happened that night in November 2007 when young Meredith lost her life.  Meanwhile, what next? Amanda is going to make a huge amount of money cashing in on Meredith's death through book deals and Hollywood films and will embrace celebrity status. Murder, it seems, is a lucrative proposition.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Away for a few days...

Photographer: AlexBPhotography 

...with only sporadic internet access. I went to see my brother and stayed at the house by the seaside, enjoying the warm Mediterranean weather. Not that it was cold in England: when I left on friday it was around 29 C, unheard of in October!
I needed to be by the beach, I love the seaside and love sprawling myself on a deckchair with a good book.
I took 'my' Minolta with me complete with tripod to try out different exposures - I fell in love with a rock and photographed it at all hours. I said to my bemused relatives I would not take pictures of them, just things - they all have expensive digital cameras, at least the boys do, and thought I was very peculiar  because I had reverted to a plain analogue SLR. I also took pictures of clay pots, playing around with the idea of a still life. Just for the sake of practising - meanwhile I am getting a few male models interested in posing for me, have now received several messages following my casting call.
Then on Saturday I realised that my newly bought light meter was not a light meter but a lux meter. I only vaguely knew what lux stood for. I did not have my laptop and was at the beach, with no WiFi but I borrowed my brother's iPhone and began searching for articles on how to convert lux into EV and work with it. My head was reeling with all the formulas I came across. I finally located some conversion tables, but using them without being able to print was a problem so I gave up. I am now getting another  light meter but I am very intrigued by this lux meter and rather than giving it away I want to keep it - who knows, when I become proficient at taking photographs I will want to use it and do all the calculations in my head, I already have an idea of what one is supposed to do.
Anyway, here I am having to get up again in just a few hours and unable to sleep because of all the coffee I drank before leaving Italy.

Photographer: Caroline Michael Model: Alex B
On the flight back  I read a most interesting piece about the famous dancer/choreographer  Martha Graham who apparently styled herself as "The Goddess" in her later years. Miss Graham was indeed very eccentric though undoubtedly immensely talented. The writer of the piece wondered whether calling herself "The Goddess" was a form of self delusion or an astute way of calling further attention to her public persona.
Claiming to be stalked is also another way of attracting attention, I have written a post about this already. Miss Graham died in the days when stalking was a word only used by hunters. Had stalking meant then what it means now she would no doubt have pointed her finger at one or two stalkers. Unfortunately for us, today, a plethora of  people, not quite as talented as Miss Graham, tends  to make repeated claims of being stalked, by people (male and female) either  copying their work and/or stealing their friends or boyfriends. Stalking is a serious matter ...but not when trivialised this way.