hroughout the summer, Kentish Town Health Centre will house a series of captivating, intimate and poignant photographs of volunteers at the Maytree, a suicide respite centre in Finsbury Park that’s been running for 15 years.
The shots, which have been captured by photographer Daniel Regan, will be paired with transcripts from Daniel’s conversations with the volunteers, and photographs from inside the centre: sun streaking through half-drawn blinds, a pair of empty tea cups waiting in a wash basin, crumpled linen on just slept-on beds.
It was a quiet afternoon at the centre and Daniel, volunteering at the time, was chatting with a colleague. “We just had this honest conversation about life,” says Daniel. “I’d become so used to having these types of chats with guests but the fact that Maytree creates this safe space in which even volunteers can open up is really special.”
Alongside volunteering at the Maytree, Daniel is the creative director of Free Space Project, an arts and well-being charity based in the Kentish Town Medical Centre. The team work alongside doctors and social workers to incorporate a broad spectrum of remedial therapies and activities beyond the clinical realm to address the needs of their patients – let’s say by introducing an individual with anxiety to a gardening project.
Daniel’s raison d’être however is photography. Ever since his grandad brought him his first camera at the age of twelve he has been avidly – “obsessively” as he puts it – snapping the moments of his life. It was also around this age when he first started having problems with his mental health. Photography became a form of self-medication, essential when he was left unsatisfied by or unable to access clinical services.
Daniel’s discovery that he was able to transfer “complex feelings” that he “didn’t always have words for” into an image became a powerful way of descrambling the thoughts in his head. This enabled him to “stay connected and present while becoming aware of the beautiful things in the world,” he says.Despite his constant desire to document the moments of his life and turn them into projects, prior to this conversation in the Maytree office, Daniel had actively refrained from turning his volunteering experience into one of his projects, wanting instead to keep the confidentiality and sanctity of the space.
On that quiet afternoon however, the conversation proved irresistible and he swiftly approached the centre’s director Natalie Howarth with his idea to document those who volunteer in the centre.
“She was really enthusiastic about it,” says Daniel, “suicide really isn’t a sexy subject. Lots of the information about it is based on statistics so Maytree were really excited about trying to engage people in conversation but in a creative way.”
“It is definitely a particular person who volunteers here,” says Daniel, who interviewed and photographed eighteen people for the exhibition and its book. “It is very different to say, volunteering at a dog rescue home or even providing telephone support for the suicidal. It really is an intense experience to sit with somebody for hours; sometimes it’s not even talking, it is just about being present.”
Most of the centre’s volunteers have been involved in helping friends and family affected by mental health and suicide. “Or,” he says, “they have experienced suicidality themselves. There is a cycle of support where people want to help others when well enough to do so.”Daniel recollects his experiences with his “very colourful mental health history.” While recovering from a suicide attempt over a decade ago, he was approached by a mental health nurse on his hospital ward late one evening. “The staff are constantly checking on you, making sure you’re still alive, you’ve eaten and are medicated, but no one had just had a conversation with me,” says Daniel.
“One night, a nurse came into my room and sat on my bed. He didn’t tell me things, he wasn’t trying to solve my problems, he was just asking me questions and letting me try and fi gure things out myself. That experience had a huge impact on me.”
Daniel has located a similar approach to mental health at Maytree and this is why he started volunteering there and why he wanted to focus his project around those who work there. “It is such a unique place,” he says, “built on the foundations of listening and allowing guests to talk openly without stigma and taboo.”
For Daniel, this is a crucial and empowering way of opening up space for discussion, which can contribute to the “normalisation and destigmatisation of having mental health difficulties,” he says.
Daniel’s encapsulating images of Maytree and candid photos of those who work there will be on display for four months, with talks and workshops running alongside. Here’s hoping they continue to stoke the same frank and transparent conversations around mental health that are so often lacking, yet so utterly necessary.
Main image: volunteer Sue at Maytree