Christine Sayer - photographing diseases of the mind
by Sandra Radja
When I was starting out on this journey of healing, I used to manifest the symptoms of every disease my clients experienced. It was exhausting and a subconscious decision, which initially left me baffled as to what kind of hell karma I was going through. I wanted to feel what they felt. I wanted to see how the herbs would react for them. I wanted to take one for the team, bear the cross, and in the meantime ruin my Ojas (immunity) to the point of being useless.
And then I learnt the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Walk a mile in their shoes they say and imagine that your perspective is not how others see the world. Images are powerful as they are digested through the sense of sight. How do you feel when visiting an art gallery, most especially one of a surrealist bent? Do you step into the light of the street and gain your bearings? Depending on how absorbed you were, you might feel a little changed for awhile and it might not be unpleasant, depending on your need to readjust to what is the norm. How would you marry the two worlds if someone you loved couldn't quite re-adust?
In Ayurveda, dementia and autism are seen as Vata disorders. Vata acts like the wind and is comprised of air and space. It is cold, light, fragile and therefore lacking integrity. It is awkward, irregular, lopsided, skittish, forgetful, subtle and thin skinned. Prana, the pure form of Vata, is the organising principle of the mind. When the pranic flow is constricted, whether by inflammation, stagnation or constriction, messages fail to reach their destination and it becomes pathological and turns into Vata. And the mind is considered the element of space so if the wild wind of Vata is going to find a place to be mischievous, it's within the element of space within the human physiology. A literal disconnect from earth can leave in you places fantastical and etheric and if you don't have the Ojas (immunity) to come back from the far off places, it can cause serious mental disorders.
Christine Sayer didn't start off life as a photographer, she cared for others in nursing. Frustration with hospital bureaucracy whilst looking after a loved one needing psychiatric care got her ditching the pen for the camera. She subsequently set out to educate others visually and with a power of intention to leave a vivid impression. She wanted to capture not just the world of the patient experiencing the mind disorder but everyone involved. As her essay on Autism is entitled, this is Alltism!
Take a moment at each photo. Observe yourself and watch the emotions rise. Some of the pictures might make you feel uncomfortable. Like Arjuna staring into the mouth of Krishna to see the beauty and the terror of this world, all of of it is wondrous. May we have the compassion to encompass the different shades of reality and find the strength in ourselves to help those that become too fragile for this world.
1. You seem to have come to this world to learn the basics of caring through nursing, experiencing healthcare issues through your family, and encountering obstacles along the way that produced the medium of photography as your voice. What was that moment of frustration of working with the health industry that triggered your need to make a change?
I think some people are born carers and for them, caring is second nature. I fit into this category and try to improve life for those who do not have a voice. I found myself caring for family members with mental health conditions over the years. With an extreme lack of beds for psychiatric patients and inadequate mental health care services, I wrote letters to elicit change. Devastatingly, a close relative needed urgent psychiatric care but his psychiatrist could not find a bed, so suggested he wait a few days for admission. The result was a massive overdose, fight for his life and the subsequent loss of confidence in 'the system'. Writing for me was not enough. I decided to use a visual language and undertook photography at Latrobe University.
2. Your photos feel confronting and yet I find myself drawn to the narrative like sitting in a theatre production. The worlds you create seem surreal. Was this your intention?
My intention was to make them both confronting and surreal. I feel they need to be when dealing with conditions such as my current project on dementia (Deconstructing Dementia). Dementia is not a comfortable topic. It is a condition many of us fear but unfortunately many of us also have to face it. It is not an easy journey for anyone whether you have it or have a loved one with it. The narrative you speak of is the journey. Highlighted are the potential delightful aspects as well as the devastating ones. Looking at the dementia world reminds me of the surrealists. A bare bottomed waiter in a cafe; Campbell's soup as perming solution in a hair dressers. I think this is an important part of the experience, embracing these surreal moments.
3. How do you create the impressions? Do you talk with subjects experiencing the illness or is the perspective from spending time in their presence and observing and imagining what their world looks like?
There are a number of ways I create the impressions. I can try to imagine what it is like to have a form of dementia, but I think unless I actually walk the path, I can only touch the surface. A little like viewing the dementia world through frosted glass. I listen, I research, I observe. The ideas for the images come in a variety of ways. Sometimes I see the photograph very clearly in my mind. Sometimes I will see something that triggers an idea. Sometimes I will ponder on an aspect I want to highlight for months.
4. In my early days as practitioner, I used to find myself mimicking the symptoms of the client to understand better how to treat. It was exhausting until I learnt to detach. Have you experienced the same?
As a carer, I do live my own experience and view the experience of others. It is very difficult to detach as it is my day to day life. I did a series on the impact Autism had on families Alltism, 2013 and it was much easier to detach as I was not personally living or observing this on a day to day basis. I do feel my photographs on dementia are cathartic for me. It is a good thing. It is what my mother wanted to do and as she fades away, I feel as though I am honouring her.
5. From an Ayurvedic perspective, we have a mantra that we treat the patient not the disease and your photos resonate clearly with that idea. How do you see your photos in line with the western model of healthcare?
This is an interesting question. I am not really sure where the photographs fit in. I think they are more created scenarios of emotions or experiences that highlight the journey. They do allow people to identify with their own situations; grieve, laugh, remember and share their own journeys. For others, the images educate and stimulate conversation.
6. What have been the reactions of the public on viewing your photos?
Reactions have been overwhelming. Some people are unable to view them as their own journeys are too raw. Many people are moved to tears by them. They see themselves or their loved one in the images. They identify with the journey. They understand. For others, they find the images fascinating, educational, informative. Parents and grand parents explain dementia to the younger generation. Photographers like to work out the technical side as the images have been taken in one shot in the camera, not worked on afterwards (exception a little work on You Have Visitors, 2014).
7. To me your photos are dreamy and fantastical and it doesn't seem like a bad place to visit. Sometimes I wonder if we were more forgiving, as a society, for those people that saw things a little differently we might be able to hold space better for those more sensitive. Traditional cultures thought nothing of accessing spirit in their day to day. Do you feel our disconnect from this place of spirit could be the cause of mental and other illness?
I am not sure if I would see it as the cause. People with great faith suffer dementia and other mental health conditions too. They can be thought of as possessed or oppressed and shunned from society. I do believe there is a medical reason behind many conditions. Perhaps a nutritional deficiency caused by not being able to absorb the nutrients due to food intolerances or conditions such as Pyrrole Disorder. Some can be hereditary, and others can lay dormant until they are triggered into action, for example by using marijuana.
8. What's been a life lesson for you in this journey?
To embrace life to the full. Grab every little moment of enjoyment from the normal to the abnormal situations. Go with it and learn from it. Breathe, observe, listen.
Christine Sayer is a photographer with a desire to highlight mental health issues. Her passion is to create a visual language to allow people to share their own stories, raise questions and open worlds. Christine lives in Castlemaine, Victoria.