Wonderland sits down with photography graduate Jessica Hardy to discuss her photography book based on her experiences with an eating disorder.
Photography might not seem the most likely of mediums through which to explore and navigate the difficulties of living with an eating disorder – particularly when the images are deeply revealing ones – but that’s exactly what Jessica Hardy has done with her latest project. It becomes less surprising, perhaps, when you find out Hardy’s a recent photography graduate and that this series of images is her final project. Still, the self-portraits of The Running of the Tap demonstrate not just Hardy’s bravery, but also her valuable and forward-thinking approach to dealing with the traumatic associations of her Bulimia.
Following the lead of the late Jo Spence (a trailblazing image maker and one of Britain’s foremost female photographers), who documented her struggles with cancer so as to better understand them, Hardy creates a loose narrative through her photographs, reconstructing “her past selves” to help her come to terms with the way she is now. That could mean figuratively reconstructing her school days by wearing her old uniform – as in the below image – or alluding to her self-harm in more abstract, though deeply affecting, ways: as in the photograph of her outstretched hand.
Struck by the frankness of her work and the honesty of her self-assessment, we jumped at the chance to go in-depth with Hardy about the project, her progression as photographer, and the difficulties and catharsis of re-living the past through image.
Your book was so strong visually and so touching. It was based on your experiences with an eating disorder, but how did the project come about?
First of all, if I go right back to the start. Obviously we had our brief and we had to make some work. I was just really interested in mental health, and it’s weird because it started with looking at men’s mental health and I found it really interesting how men are always overshadowed but gaining access to that is really hard so I decided to… because I had my eating disorder and no one knew about it, I wanted to make work about bulimia and anorexia but I just didn’t…I wasn’t… I don’t think I was strong enough to make it about myself. So I wanted to find other young women and young men that were suffering with it. So I went to… you know Beat, that charity? Well they do support group meetings, so I went to one of them and I heard loads of women’s experiences and I just realised like…It was going to to be so hard to get everyone to be so honest with me. Because even in these meetings women were telling a lot, but you could still tell a lot of people were holding back. I just thought that the best way for me to actually do this is to be brave and do it on myself. Because then I thought I’ve got all access and I can show everything I want to show and that’s hold it kind of fell into it.
Definitely, I think obviously it’s a very secretive illness isn’t it? People hold their disorder kind of quite close to them. Did you feel like, obviously because it’s something you’ve struggled with for a long time, did you feel like it’s something that’s important that we get out in the open and talk about, that there’s a new discourse about it?
Yeah, definitely. People….I think what helped me most making this work was the fact that I was telling people and I was talking about that. I think that’s such a big step. It’s like with any addiction or mental illness, that actually admitting to yourself and other people that you have a problem gets the ball rolling into getting better. Especially, with this, everyone says to me, ‘oh it must feel weird with everyone knowing because it was meant to be such a big secret ‘and they’re like ‘you probably wouldn’t have been able to overcome it without…’ I haven’t overcome it completely obviously, I’m starting to. Without talking about it I would never have made this step and I think it’s really important to get other people doing the same. So, that’s what I want to do with this work, try and encourage other people maybe through using photography as therapy to get talking to people, family and friends.
I think that’s so important. I think, firstly I think what you’ve done it really brave, and secondly I think that as soon as you start being open and giving the disorder less power that you are able to separate it from your personal self, you know?
Yeah, because I think you become quite trapped in it…
Definitely. I think that’s really inspiring. How did you go about…It’s a very specific set of images and it’s a range of different things, obviously with the linking theme. How did you go about being like ‘this is going to capture this, this is going to capture this?
Okay, so first of all I started with…I looked at Jo Spence, who’s a photographer, who worked with photo therapy. She had cancer and then she used it to kind of explore her feelings and emotions of her illness and what she felt about it. I was really inspired by that. She did a lot about recreating memories and going through her family album and recreating things through that. So I took those two things and tried to make them into one. So I first started photographing my memories and bits of my life that I think have really effected me and how I am now. Things like my first day at school, and how I really didn’t like school and I tried to recreate that in my portraits. Then with that, after recreating my past self I looked into recreating who I am now, trying to capture these things that are really significant to me and that I think really represent me. Then I looked at extra materials, like old photographs and I had a lot of old journals, like school journals that people had wrote things in about me, and things like that. I used that, and then eventually I went on to shooting on 35mm to try and represent my actual disorder in a way without being too obvious.
I feel like it’s subtle but poignant. Like, you’re not showing a picture of the actual physical act itself…
I was really worried about…Because we did a presentation, one thing that I was so worried about, if I show people too much, I don’t want to inspire anyone. I think as it is, it sounds silly saying it, but when I watch documentaries, I’ve heard the young girls saying like ‘oh I’ve watched’, you know Karen Carpenter, she died from it. There was a documentary about her and I saw these young girls saying that they’d watch this documentary and learnt about what she’d done and then taken inspiration from it and tips. Like, oh my gosh that would just be…I just don’t even think about it. It’s such a big deal that I need to make sure I don’t put anything in here where people are going to be like ‘Oh, she does this’.
I don’t want to be like a help book, promoting eating disorders. I think people can accidentally, sometimes when you give too much away you do…You’re telling people things that you shouldn’t do, and you just don’t realise. You don’t know whose going to look at it.
Definitely, if people are vulnerable… So it was a conscious decision I guess to kind of frame things in a certain way, that were giving it away but not…Also that can kind of be representative of the fact of what it’s like to live with a disorder. Not giving everything away, but having those hints at it.
The size of my book, I wanted to go quite small with it because I wanted it to be very personal. I wanted people to have to really look for it, I didn’t want it to be so obvious and bold because it’s taken a lot for my to do this project and showing all these really secretive things. Especially because it’s not even like, it’s only in this book I exposed my disorder and it’s quite a lot of things about my ex-boyfriend and things like that.
How did you get into photography and do you think photography is a really important medium in this process that you’ve done?
I joined photography club at school lunchtimes and just started making work there. It wasn’t very good, it wasn’t very thought out but then in my final year I did photography as a subject and I did a bit of wildlife photography and I won a competition that made me feel really…I felt like I’d found my calling. I was a very quiet kid and I was never very confident. I was never one of those people that succeeded in something. I was always in the middle, half way, I floated along. So I gained a lot of confidence in my photography. Then I went to college for a bit and started making work that I actually thought about. I did a project all about gun culture in America and tried to make it over here so I had my little brother and I tried to…This is where I got interested in documentaries, because I was trying to do something that actually had a big, bulky story subject.
What role did photography play in your journey to recovery? Was it a therapy tool? Or just a way to share your experiences?
I haven’t seen this kind of photography done too much recently. This is what my next stage is with my work, taking it to charities and trying to see if they have any use for it because I think it could really help people. I think it’s a really important field because not everyone can draw and not everyone can write. I don’t really see myself as a writer, I find that so hard, and I definitely can’t draw or paint so photography for me has been such as important thing, especially for coping with my illness. I would never have told my parents, I just never would have happened. So this kind of made it, it kind of pushed me into having to tell them. I think it could really help…especially younger people maybe, just because it’s something creative and they would enjoy it if there’s a club. It doesn’t even have to be used, especially with eating disorders or any mental illness. A lot of photographers, like Francesca Woodman, have used photography to explore her going through that change from girl to woman and I think even that even. Puberty is such a stressful time for children and for them to actually have a way to explore what they’re going through and look back on it, I think that would be a really helpful tool. That’s what I really want to do with it now.
That’s amazing. That’s really good. So, did you find any moments in the project challenging, were there any points where you were like, this is too close to the bone, or…?
Just taking the photographs was literally the hardest thing because I was like out in the open and I… I’m so self-conscious anyway, the photograph where I’m like sitting on the goalpost. There’s all these kids at the park and I walk up with my tripod and my big Mamiya 7 and I’m sitting on top of it with the cable release, it times like that when I think people are looking at me thinking…I hope no one comes up and asks in a way. I think like…as they were the first photographs I was taking, like my confidence was was quite low with it because I’d never done self-portraiture. I think that was the most challenging thing. I think also wondering, is this any good? When I make work I never have a lot of confidence until people start telling me it’s good. I think that’s the most challenging thing, especially when you’re making it so personal and putting it out there, when someone says they don’t like it it’s like two blows, like they don’t like my photography and because it’s so personal it kind of hits a little bit harder. Luckily I haven’t had too much criticism on this yet but…
I can image you haven’t. It’s really impressive.
It’s hard sometimes when people are complimenting my work and I was like ‘are they complimenting it because they actually like the work, or because they feel a bit sorry for me because…’ You know what I mean, it has been quite hard in a way. There have been a lot of positives but it has been really challenging to actually stand by the work and to have people talk about the work. When my parents saw the work at the exhibition, a lot of people were coming up to them saying ‘it must be so hard for you’, it’s like oh no. Yeah. It’s pretty heartbreaking to have my parents have to see the work.
Which photograph visually means the most to you?
Visually, my favourite photograph is the one of me in the gym. It’s the very blue photograph, just because I think that one it really made me…personally I was so gym obsessed and everyone knew it. I think now looking at the photo I do see it as just like…it is a big part of my life, now it’s looking at it in a way where I have a healthy, like I do a lot of exercise and I have to eat obviously to do the exercise and I think that’s helped me a lot with my disorder and I think without looking at that image and really seeing myself in that environment over and over again, I didn’t realise what a good outlet it would be for me. So yeah, and it’s the best image I think.
It’s really strong.
Yeah, I do just really like that image. It’s the one I’m most proud of.
Which photographers inspired you in terms of self-portraits? Did you have any people that you thought like this work is amazing, this is something similar to what I want to do?
The main person for me, I keep saying her, is Jo Spence and Rosie Martin. They were…they are just really good photographers. Like Jo Spence’s whole thing with the photo therapy and the recreation of the family album, or re-modelling of the family album. It’s just really inspiring because they’re such raw images and that’s what a really like. With mine, a lot of my images, I’ll have spots and stuff and some photographers are like ‘why don’t you edit them out?’ And I’m like it’s more honest to be like this is me, this is me in that moment. So, I really like, a lot of her images are really unflattering, but that’s what’s so good about them.
Yeah, they’re real. She hasn’t airbrushed herself, she wants you to see her for who she is and I do really like that. And people like Francesca Woodman, she was like so young, she killed herself sadly but her work that she made at such a young age I felt was so inspiring. The way she would make these really nice portraits. When I was actually trying to visually understand how to photograph this, it didn’t first of all come to, like I wanted to do self portraiture but I thought there would be a lot of movement and be a lot more arty but after I saw Jo Spence’s work it completely changed it and I really wanted to do the whole recreation of memories and straight up portraiture kind of style.
I think on the whole, the project is coming from a place of honesty so it makes sense to be really honest in your depictions of things and not airbrushing. I think that would detract from the whole point.
Like, in the school photo, the one where I’m in my uniform, I look so awkward and it’s because I felt so awkward. Like I’m standing in front of my old school in my old uniform. I think it’s almost kind of funny because you just look at the image and go oh god. But yeah, that’s what I like about it, the fact that it is really really honest.
I think that makes it relatable as well, which is kind of going towards going towards the goal of helping people feel understood and heard and if your work resonates with people like, ‘do you know what, Jessica was brave and maybe I can be honest too’.
Yeah, if I do talks about it or, I get so nervous when I speak in front of crowds but with this work I think I like speak a bit easy about it because it’s about myself and I think that might be quite inspiring for a lot of people because I’ll go up on stage really awkward and nervous and they might feel that they’re the same then when I actually speak about it it might give them a lot more confidence. Like ‘oh gosh I’m just as awkward as this girl and if she can do it I can do it’.