Jude Wacks: ‘This is what’s going on in kids’ lives, and people need to be aware of it’
PUBLISHED: 16:04 17 June 2019 | UPDATED: 16:04 17 June 2019
At first, you don’t actually notice. Here is a portrait of a young man: he’s 18, maybe 19-years-old. It’s a simple yet striking photo, where the subject – dressed in a black t-shirt with cropped, dark hair – stares back at a lens through brown eyes. There is a tinge of sadness to it, nothing more than that, but then you see his left arm.
There are marks and scars all over. Some are straight and long, others more curved and short; all of them serving as a reminder of the level of mental pain and anguish that manifests itself in the form of self-harm.
The portrait is of Alan, and is one of a series of eight which makes up the Best Days Of Your Life photography project by Jude Wacks. Created to break through the stigma and place those suffering with self-harm issues front and centre, the photo has been shortlisted for a Wellcome Photography Prize.
"Of all the areas of mental health - self-harm is still one of the most taboo," explains Wacks.
"When I started the project, one of the people I featured mentioned (the idea) of being hidden. They pull sleeves down and the viewers hide, they don't want to look at it, they distance themselves. There's denial.
"I really wanted to say it as it is: this is what's going on in our kids' lives, in every playground throughout the country, and people need to be aware of it.
"I suppose for these people, it was maybe their first opportunity to stand publically and say 'this is it, this is me.'"
Wacks' point that this is happening 'in every playground around the country' is supported by recent research from The Lancet Psychiatry. In a study running between 2000 and 2014, they found that "increases in prevalence (of self-harm) were noted in both sexes and across age groups," pointing out that for young women aged 16 to 24, the number of known cases had inflated from 6.5 per cent to almost 20 per cent during that time.
"I wanted to strip back the images, so that there was nothing else but the subject," Wacks continues.
"Harm is not really the focus of the imagery. I wanted the viewer to look at them as people, as beautiful adolescents, and then see the self-harm.
"When I was deciding how to photograph it, it's never one issue, it's never one place: it's all over. I chose to focus on the arms. I didn't want to do other body parts, as I didn't want to glamourise and sensationalise."
Wacks grew up in Barbican and lived on the Golden Lane Estate until 2007, when she relocated to Willesden Green with her family upon the birth of her fourth child.
The mum-of-four is one of 28 photographers shortlisted across four categories for the Wellcome Prize - Social Perspectives, Hidden Worlds, Medicine in Focus and Outbreaks - and there were over 6,000 entries in total. Wacks has been put forward in the Outbreaks division, where images 'had to capture the impact of disease as it spreads.'
Winners will be announced on July 3, and you'll be able to see Wacks' picture alongside all of the other shortlisted entries at the University of the Arts London, from July 4 to 13.
Wacks began working on Best Days Of Your Life while studying for a postgraduate diploma at the London College of Communication. Her daughter, Ellie, is one of the eight people photographed in the project.
"We had to do a personal project and this was mine. It was while I was researching that I came across statistics and figures about the rise of self-harm pictures on social media, and it correlated with my experience.
"The way it (self-harm) is portrayed in the media is that it comes with a back story, or a broken home, or some kind of other issue. Actually, in my experience, that wasn't the case. Most of the kids that took part (in the project) came from very stable, loving, middle-class backgrounds. On paper everything was great, but yet these people were needing to express themselves in such a way."
Wacks says it is "a real honour" to be nominated for the prize, but that "more to the point it's really bringing the issue to the forefront and continuing to raise awareness - that's the main takeaway.
"Mostly, I am proudest of the eight young people who were all brave and honest enough to step forward and show the world the amazing individuals they truly are.
"The only way to get rid of stigma and taboo is to have open, frank discussions."
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