The fog has lifted slightly and I can think clearer – Marie Smith

I was born and brought up in South London. After brief stints of living outside of London and also in East London, I have always found my way back to South London. I am the sort of person who enjoys comforts of familiarity. As I get older, I am more often seeking a quiet and having more of a connection to nature, so the idea of leaving London and having a slower pace of life is something I would like to work towards in the future.

Photography is now very much ingrained into my life, in terms of physically making photographs as well as thinking/reading/writing about photography. I still feel pretty new to the medium – I graduated with an MA in history of art in photography three years ago, and although my MA gave me a grounding in the history of photography, it’s a medium that takes time to navigate. I would only say that it is only within the last two years that I have gained the confidence and understanding of  my practice. 

I am not in a position to make money from my practice – yet! That would be nice and it is something that I am working towards. At the moment, I am working a “day job” to subsidise my practice and living.

What’s your story?

I worked a lot with photography while studying for my Bachelor’s degree but fluctuated between numerous mediums. I suppose, looking back, that I felt very unsettled in what medium fitted my aspirations, but I did have an interest in lens-based work and the seeds were sowed then.

However, I don’t have a background strictly in photography. During my MA in history of art, I specialised in photography and this gave me a firm understanding of the theory and history of the medium, but I would say that this course also gave me confidence to pursue photography. 

For many years I had been frustrated and unable to find a way to talk about subjects that mattered to me, such as identity, memory, mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the death of my mum that I started to utilise photography as a way to address topics that interested and concerned me.

I have also had a tension with writing; I was never sure how or where I could incorporate it into my work. However, I found a way to use text as a form of visual language to aid the images that I make.

Photography has allowed me to face certain things that I have been keen to talk about for several years, in particular death and my relationship with my parents. Photography has enabled me to talk about their identities and I have been forced to look at them not just as my parents, but as people with their idiosyncrasies and stories.

It felt cathartic to make the series ‘White Trainer’ and ’28-09-2017′, to talk openly about my father’s death and the implication of mental health on black men. It forced me to confront my own mental health, and to utilise photography as a space to explore what was important to me.  

Photography has given me agency, a space to curate and discuss subjects that are overlooked – for example women of colour and their mental health and wellbeing, which I am documenting in my on-going series ‘Whispering for help’. To my surprise, mental health has come into the forefront more than I had anticipated.

I have also seen myself explore landscape photography more. Recently, I made a series ‘Whatever brings me solace’ where I have, for the first time, omitted my physical presence in the work and limited myself in the concept of this series, which has pushed me to engage with a new dynamic within my work. I have grown to see landscape as an extension of vulnerability and humility. I have also become more aware of how humans disrespect and disregard nature, and I also see this thoughtlessness being reflected in how people of colour are treated in society.

Tell us about ‘The fog has lifted slightly and I can think clearer.’

In March 2019, I started this series and the idea was simple and instinctive. I opened a page on my website and started writing what I was feeling. I then began to juxtapose the text with images, landscapes which provided metaphor for how I was feeling.

I later included self-portraits from my archive, portraits which, at the time, didn’t fit the project I ended up making but suited the outcome for this series. Quite a few images came from my archive, and for me this confirms that I had slowly but surely developed an aesthetic, one which had been driving my analogue processes. 

I spent a lot of time feeling my way through the series and the process has been a bit ad-hoc. At the beginning, this was largely influenced by my withdrawal symptoms which lasted at least six months. As they subsided, I started to be able to look and think a bit more outwardly.

Looking back, I was in a weird space mentally and I suppose my concern was not what it looked like, but I was playing my process for everyone to see. I suppose that’s a bold move. However, it is not a methodology that I would follow again. Despite that, it was not a bad experience overall.

This series documents a very personal struggle; how do you feel now when you look back at it?

Now that I have finished the series, I can be more reflective about it. I couldn’t whilst making it as I was too close to the process. It was useful for me – I didn’t make the work for anyone else but myself. This was the first time I have been explicit about my mental health. I simply needed to find a way to process what I was feeling when I came off my anti-depressant medication.

As the year evolved and my physical symptoms subsided, I found that it was other outside influences that were becoming a burden for me, rather than my past; I had spent a lot of time processing issues from my childhood, and I think at that point of making this series I was at peace with my past. 

However, the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths that galvanised the movement made me reflect further upon infrastructures that have oppressed people like myself. I remember reading about about a Black woman who was married with young children – she had been turned away from getting treatment for COVID-19 as her symptoms were not deemed severe. She died at home.

This really shocked me as she lived nearby where I was living at the time in Peckham and this really brought home the severity off the pandemic, and also with how Black lives are treated as disposable. If she’d had treatment, she could have survived. That could have been me, I thought as well. This situation and others such as Belly Mujinga‘s death made me feel incredibly anxious and also angry. At the time I was not making many photographs, but I was writing a lot and this series allowed me to vent my frustration.

Looking back it was necessary for me to do this work, as it also became a prompt for the series ‘Whispering for help’. I started to wonder how other women of colour felt and talked about their mental health, and I was also looking for another way to widen the discussion about mental health and wellbeing – focusing on women in particular as our voices can get lost within the discussion about mental health.

I have recently finished the final edit for the series and now that my mental health has improved slightly, I feel that I have found a resolution to this series.

Elsewhere you say “I have utilised landscape photography in particular to understand and reframe how I engage with my mental health.” How does being in the landscape help you?

Nature symbolises my relationship with mental health. The landscape has an essence that helps me reframe my identity, which is influenced by my mental health. My mental health does not define me, but it does play a part in how I negotiate the world and that negotiation applies to how I function when I am recording landscapes.

When I am out in the landscape, I find myself to not be preoccupied with other external factors, so it’s important for me to find this space as I can contextualise what I am feeling. It is not that I forget my troubles, but I find myself engaging with my mind and body differently.

The expansive scope of landscape means that there are endless possibilities, and that potential does make me feel optimistic. The physical exercise which often happens goes which photographing the landscape makes me feel that I have achieved something – the adrenaline rush and all of those good endorphins are very beneficial.

Having spent so much time in the city, have you always felt an affinity to being outdoors and among nature or is this something that came later on?

This relationship with the outdoors and nature in particular developed later. As someone who grew up in London and was never introduced to nature as a child, I have felt myself to be at my most vulnerable when I am in nature.

The experience is humbling and makes me feel present in my body. Depending on how remote you are, for example at times when you are unable to access to the internet, you have no choice but to engage with the environment.

This context is something that I am appreciating more and more. When I was younger and not familiar with nature, it created an element of fear but also curiosity. It’s the curiosity that drives me to make the work that I am making now, seeing nature not just as a space to observe but as a space to reflect upon my mortality and the implications it has on my mental health and wellbeing.

Share some recommendations for our readers. What are you currently watching, reading, or listening to?

I would recommend anything written by Tina Campt, in particular ‘Listening to Images’. Also Saidiya Hartman’s ‘Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments’.

In the way of photography books, I find solace reading Zoe Leonards ‘Survey’ and Teju Cole’s ‘Blind Spot’. 

I don’t own a TV, but who needs one when you have a laptop? I love films and would recommend ‘Rocks’, it really reminded me of the girls I was friends with at school.

You can also find modern classics such as Julie Dash’s ‘Daughters of the Dust’ on Netflix which I would also recommend. Mubi also has a good selection of films. 

In terms of TV, ‘Lovecraft County’ and ‘I May Destroy You’ have been the the two shows I have enjoyed the most this year.

Music wise, I’ve really struggled to concentrate on anything and particularly in the first lockdown I listened to NTS radio a lot, which kept me motivated whilst I worked at home. The recent Adrianne Lenker album ‘Songs’ is very beautiful and so is Lomelda’s album ‘Hannah’. 

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

I have a photograph of a postcard by Ming Smith – Untitled (Self Portrait with Camera) that I have constantly been looking at as a source of encouragement. This self portrait encapsulates everything that I seek to do with my practice; to have agency, and to utilise the camera as a tool to encourage narratives that are authentic and representative of myself.

marieesmith.com / @marie_elaina_