- Interview by Lexi Jude -
A collaboration between photographer, Jon Fisher and model Kerry Holland that exemplifies the strength of battling mental illness and the forgiveness and release they give themselves for enduring that pain.
This is a series that confronts all the ugly truths of eating disorders, the pain and suffering an individual goes through both psychologically and physically throughout the realization of the illness and the battle, recovery, and release from it.
They go on to discuss the drive for creating this series by stating,
“The Body Forgive Me series was something we had wanted to do and had discussed for some time. To show the torment of living with an eating disorder through portrait photography is a difficult thing. The idea of being twisted or pulled out of normal behaviour was the premise behind this shoot. I deliberately kept the models face out of the shots, as I wanted the viewer to focus on her body, but also not see any facial expression. It creates an uncertainty in the images. I hope it’s uncomfortable to look at. I hope it enables the viewer to feel empathy and understanding.
I wanted to ask Holland about her journey with her struggle with mental illness and her artistic and personal growth through creating this series.
Questions for Kerry Holland
LJ: This is a vulnerable experience, being so transparent and vulnerable when performing a visual narrative relating to personal health struggles front of a camera. So, why do you think it is important to speak up about these mental health issues in such a raw and honest way?
KH: Because words can never truly articulate the chaos and emotional turmoil that goes on inside someone who suffers from mental health issues. I was about 14 when my cognitive health began to deteriorate and its first manifestation was as anorexia. I had so much bubbling up inside me and I didn't know how to express it, I didn't feel I deserved or had the right to. A lot of anorexics also struggle with alexithymia, a disorder where the sufferer, in short, cannot express their emotions in words or acknowledge them. I had so much rage and pain built up inside me, my body ended up getting the hit and I expressed it by trying to kill it.
Up until this point I thought mental health issues were rare conditions and when it happened to me, I felt so much shame, I thought I was weak and pathetic, something an anorexic is afraid of being. It wasn't until, over my many years of fighting to recover and rediscover myself, I engaged with conversations about mental health with so many everyday people who seem so put together. The responses from so many people being, in relief, 'Oh god, me too'. However, that wasn't without people and institutions making me feel like I was a problem that they did not want to deal with, or was worth the extra time that I needed.
I learnt that we are constantly taught by culture and society that having mental health difficulties is something to be ashamed of, or that we are an anomaly, and if we want to get by, we need to sweep it under the rug and pretend there is nothing wrong. We are made to think that no one will understand, and when we try to communicate, we feel unlistened to and misunderstood. You either get demonised as 'bat - shit crazy' or people romanticize that they can fix you, it will be easy and they will become a hero.
I was lucky I was born into a family whose foundations were with the arts. I was surrounded by animators, musicians, painters, film makers, photographers... and I became the first dancer. I found I began to listen to myself when I moved, I rediscovered a faint voice when I improvised. When I went and saw dance work on stage, on film or in photography, when the artist physicalized their inner world, it wasn't just cathartic for them, I would weep with them and feel embodied with their release. I felt a similar process in all forms of art, it allowed me to reconnect with people, to feel human and be able to invite people into my world, in a multi sensory way, to walk alongside me. The only way to be understood is to be as bare and vulnerable as possible and invite others to feel safe and free to do so also.
But it has to be real, it has to be raw, you have to let yourself be vulnerable. The audience knows when an artist is not, and they will get overlooked for something else in their search for the truth. The audience is purposely searching for that real connection to an art, they look for themselves in what they see.
LJ: What was the most difficult part? What was most rewarding?
KH: Probably revisiting and reliving the worst times of my illness. It's not just remembering the images of the past, but re-embodying how that physically felt during those moments, that period, the sensory experience, what lead me to become so ill. The aftermath, the emotions, the guilt, the shame, the fear, the risk of falling back down into the rabbit hole. We lock a lot of all this away to get by, to try and live, going back to it is like opening Pandora's box, you may regret re-releasing these monsters.
The most rewarding is when I get back the photo edits and I am able to say 'that's it, that's what I was trying to tell you', it’s like I've finally allowed myself to speak. My disorders have taken so much away from me, blocked opportunities, so to be able to use them to create something, to be productive and make something that is hopefully helpful for others makes me feel better and less like I've wasted my youth.
LJ: Has this experience created a form of metamorphous in your growth and healing process relating to the mental illness being tackled in this body of work?
KH: Most definitely and a lot more than I expected it to. It provided me with autonomy and empowerment, and in turn has lead me to massive leaps in understanding why I went in the direction I did. Previously, I was always forced into therapy and therapies that didn't work for me. And when I expressed this I was just shut down and made to feel I was a hopeless case or simply non-compliant. My listening to my own instincts to what I find helpful and taking back control of how I manage my journey, I am able to listen to myself better and provide better self-care. I may not know how I need to go about healing myself yet, but I've definitely learnt how to recognize my behavior and navigate myself in this reality a lot better.
LJ: How do you think this work will impact others?
KH: I expect it will affect people differently. I hope it will provide comfort to sufferers that they are not alone, a connection to the outside world, a feeling of support and solidarity, one step towards being brave enough to open up their own dialogue. And I hope it provides compassion from others, allows the individual's support system a look inside the chaos, to understand it's more than it seems to appear on the outside. To help them see, it's not something that can be healed with a quick fix, but long lasting support and time. And that we all go through similar inner conflicts, they just may manifest differently, for example the events that led me to become an anorexic, may cause someone else to become an alcoholic, an addict or develop OCD.
LJ: What is next for you on your artistic journey?
KH: To continue and expand on this project is what I want to focus my next few years on. I want to explore the various different themes and create work about the reality of the experience of what it means to live with an eating disorder, and step it away from the idea that it's about food, to understand that food is a symptom for something more traumatic. Find what's universal about it and connect people. I want to create a work which isn't just stuck in one style, I would like to collaborate with others who have their own distinct styles and learn from them. I also want to do more than just photography, but expand to film, dance, art, installation, from online to galleries, from pictures to conversation and dialogue. Most importantly I want to find my voice again, to strengthen it so I am confident to navigate, with conviction, the direction I choose to take.
To switch the perspective, I wanted to see photographer Jon Fisher’s thoughts on this series and his reflection on his own artistic journey.
Questions For Jon Fisher:
LJ: Your art practice is a representation of who you are, so what narrative or statement are you trying to vocalize through your artistic expression?
JF: I would say that while the work is a narrative, it’s not intended to be a fixed statement. It is left for the viewer to interpret. People will identify with the images in different ways, some as someone living outside of their own experience, others will see themselves, or someone they used to be. All of these are valid perspectives. The work is also something of a Trojan horse, as the subject matter is about an eating disorder, but at the same time it comes from my viewpoint of depression and the anxiety of borderline personality disorder, so part of me is contained within the work. I think if it creates empathy and understanding, it’s doing its job.
LJ: What feeds your untamable desire to create art?
JF: It has been more helpful to me than any therapist has been. My photography lets me speak in a way I am unable to do any other way. If I can use the depression and negative thoughts to create something positive or thought provoking then it’s a way to cancel them out/turn them against themselves.
LJ: Why photography, why does this medium of visual storytelling intrigue you? Why not another art form?
JF: Because what interests me is people, and our individual experiences of the world. Nothing else captures that like photography.
LJ: Who are the most impactful artist to you and how have they influenced your practice?
JF: Diane Arbus. Because her photography is still polarizing opinion 37 years after she died. Also Norman Mailer said, in 1971, "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child." Who wouldn’t want to see the results of her photography after that?
Emmet Gowin. For his photographs of his wife and family. The rawness and honesty is beautiful to see.
Francesca Woodman. I only discovered her work quite recently. It’s beautiful. She died by suicide at the age of 22. I wonder what more she would have produced if she had lived.
LJ: What is next for you on your artistic journey?
KH: This is an on going project, preparation is currently under way for our next shoot and it will be much more complex in terms of costumes and locations. It feels like the work is growing and evolving, it’s a good feeling!
This series is an incredible voice for eating disorder awareness and how through addressing and vocalizing the truths of the illness can bring a sense of peace to one’s self and a sense of community with fellow mental health advocates. It is not something that should be ignored or taken lightly, so acknowledgment and communication are detrimental. Acknowledgment and communication needs to happen so that one can realize what they are experiencing is a form of mental illness, so they do not feel alienated or misunderstood from society, and they know recovery is possible.
Kerry Holland is a 30-year-old contemporary dance artist from Leeds who graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2016. Her work, from choreography, dance film to photographic collaborations has focused mainly on the human condition and her own search for her identity and voice.
Jon Fisher is a 50-year-old college tutor and photographer from London. His current photographic work aims to explore and understand the experience of mental illness and find a way to capture it on camera in a raw and authentic way. Website