Updated: Sep 18
Lea Thijs is a South African Photographer who uses Photography at times to explore intimate topics such as in her project ‘Safe House’, a project that turns the lens on her relationship with her Father who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). In this project she dismantles the walls of her house In order to examine the foundations of her family.
Mental health is not often a common topic for open discussion in many African countries. The stigma and preconceptions attached to it such as beliefs that someone with a mental health illness is ‘possessed’ and the lack of support and empathy from people, may leave someone who is facing these challenges feeling lonely and hopeless.
In this piece, Anne Nwakalor, Founding Editor of No! Wahala Magazine speaks with Lea about her project ‘Safe House’.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarification.
Anne: Why did you choose photography as a medium to explore your Fathers Bipolar condition?
Lea: I was in my third year of University (studying BA Photography) and I had to come up with a project, nothing was coming to mind and I had to return to South Africa, so I decided to turn the camera on my family. My parents were used to me taking pictures, when they were going through a divorce they were used to always having a camera around. The camera really helped us not to think about it, and later on we would talk about it. I would tell him images that would come to my head and he would tell me images that would come to his head. The camera helped us to separate time of ‘let’s have leisure’ and ‘let’s get serious’, It was a collaboration between both of us. Thats why I chose to use a large format camera as it takes roughly 1 image at a time and I have to think about the images before I tell my dad to get involved. I use photography to make sense of things where there is fear and where there are strong emotions. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t taking from him, this project is more about the relationship of having someone in your family that has a mental health illness.
Anne: How did using Photography to explore your Fathers Bipolar condition help you?
Lea: Pretty much to be able to digest something that was quite hard. The images are subtle, I didn’t want to show an exaggerated thing as it was very subtle when living with my dad. Yes there was some breaking of plates and moments of anger but it wasn’t super dramatic, no extreme violence so I just wanted that transparency and subtlety.
Anne: Yes and I think it works because a lot of the time mental health problems are very subtle. You go through life thinking it's normal until you reach a point where you think, ‘Yeah I need to get checked out’ You don’t just go from 0 to 100 quick, its a build up.
Lea: And I think it depends on the person who is experiencing it because, for my dad, it might not be subtle it might be quite hard, but for those around him it might come off as subtle. It might have some affects on you but it's not that bad.
Anne: How was the process of documenting this topic for you mentally?
Lea: It was quite difficult because in the beginning, my dads Psychiatrist was against the idea because it could damage his mental health. At the beginning he was very open about sharing everything but the problem is that I am still his daughter and there are certain things that he can’t tell his daughter as it could affect my own mental health. There were moments where he had to get a simple guide from his Psychiatrist on how not to share everything with me but also how not to limit information he would give.
Anne: What is your take on mental health especially within Africa?
Lea: There is definitely a difference between communities, if you look at a lot of people in South Africa who are black, many don’t talk about mental health in conversations, as if it is something that does not exist and in White communities, we talk about it but there is definitely not enough conversations around it, especially on how to respond to someone in your family who may have a mental health problem.
Anne: What advise would you give from your own experience, to a Creative who is thinking about making a project around mental health?
Lea: Make sure that you do have an intimate link to it, that it’s not just something that you are curious about and that you want to discover. If that is the case, then read some books and watch some documentaries. If you are doing a project then you must have some kind of personal link to it to give you some credibility. Many people think that any Photographer can ‘shoot’ anything, and I respect people who think like that, but I don’t believe in that, I believe that if you're going to shoot something then you need to have some sort of connection to what you're photographing. You need to know that difference between your own curiosity of learning something, and something that you have an emotional connection to. If you are doing something about mental illness, make it as intimate as possible, make it about you rather than the other person and how you relate to that illness.
To have a look at Lea’s project, Visit her website.