Artists Against Depression, an interview with Chudy Ogobegwu
Chudy Ogobegwu is a photographer from Nigeria and creator of the Peace Exhibit, a pan-African online exhibition that brings together photographs and text from artists around the continent on the theme of depression and anxiety.
As part of our ongoing Representation Matters series, we spoke with Chudy about his exhibition, how his photography has helped him through the pandemic, and to hear his thoughts on the responsibility and potential photographers have for changing the way we see and act towards each other.
You describe the Peace Exhibit as a collection of fine art portraits and literary works created by photographers, artists and writers around Africa that aims to stir up conversations about mental health, depression and the search for “personal peace” that eludes so many. I wonder if you could start by just briefly describing the project and how it all began. What drew you to mental health and its depiction in photography and writing?
After the pandemic hit and the lockdown began in Nigeria, my work as a photographer dried up and that sparked a whole bunch of anxiety for me. I have had several points in my life where I’ve dealt with depression and the pandemic and consequent lockdown triggered that for me.
I was talking with some friends that are also creatives and I realised that the same things I was feeling- the anxiety, uncertainty and depression- they were feeling too. For some of them who have dealt with depression all their lives, it similarly triggered an explosion of those difficult feelings.
That was the spark of the project. I thought, if this is what I am going through and a lot of other people are going through it as well, we should have conversations about it through our work. I wanted to extend the conversation and put out a call for submissions and it’s just taken off from there.
You have certainly had an incredible response from the creative community across Africa. Do you think that alongside bringing up and mobilising conversations around mental health that there is an aspect of self-therapy for a photographer in being able to express how you feel and work through those feelings through your practice? And do you think this is part of the reason for the number of submissions you received?
Most definitely. For me, creating art is therapeutic. In fact, before I reached out to other photographers, I had already created my own images, the process of doing that, for me, has always been therapeutic. Once I start shooting, it’s like a form of therapy.
From what I can tell from the feedback I’ve got from other photographers who’ve joined the project, it’s had the same effect on them too. It’s a therapy, a way of dealing with the feelings and often unspeakable experiences that many of us go through in our daily lives. I also think the fact that the call-out was so broad and open was another reason so many photographers responded. The only limit that I enforced was that all images needed to be in black and white. In my experiences with depression and anxiety, it’s almost as if in those moments the world has lost all colour, that’s what it feels like and I wanted that to be captured. Other than that, the photographers had complete liberty to interpret the theme.
Looking through the images in your exhibition is an incredibly moving and challenging experience. Many of the images capture emotional experiences and feelings that I think are near impossible to articulate in words or numbers. But it’s strange that something that is so deeply visual- photography is of course a visual medium that seeks to render something visible- is capable of capturing something that is invisible like mental health.
What do you think is the potential of photography to capture realities and experiences in such truthful and unflinching ways and why do you think it is uniquely placed to drive conversations and inspire reflection?
I think photography and literature get at the emotional level. The best way to describe it is through an example from the exhibition, I remember receiving the image and as soon as I opened it, it felt like it gripped me by the neck. It showed me something visceral, raw that I could feel. It didn’t just tell me, it showed me what it felt like to be in that state of despair.
Photography can just grip you. I’m not sure statistics or data would be able to have the effect that an image like this has. I’m curious about what it is that makes photography do that to us, I’m not sure that I fully understand it but I know that it does. It somehow conveys our emotions so much better than other forms.
Absolutely, photography is an incredible universal communicator and I think it does have an ability to speak what is often unspeakable.
Taking that idea a step further, you describe the project as ‘‘artists against depression’ – do you think photography has the power to help fight depression or the stigma that surrounds depression? And do you think artists have a responsibility to mobilise conversation?
Most definitely. There were two things that I wanted for this project to do that I think visual and literary arts are particularly well equipped to do- one, show people that are struggling that they’re not alone, because often with depression and anxiety there is this overwhelming sense of isolation.
In photography, people are able to see an image and to relate to its depiction- “this represents what I felt yesterday. This was me last week or this was me this morning.” That process of identification with an image or work of art is an integral part of the medium. In this project, seeing yourself or your experiences depicted in an image can help you to feel less alone in a way that other mediums may not be able to do. For example, you may read and know that one-in-four people struggle with depression, but the numbers themselves don’t necessarily bring comfort. When a person sees an image or reads a piece of literature that puts into words or images what they are feeling, they can connect on a personal level and can begin to manage that sense of isolation.
On the other hand, especially in Africa, we have a major problem with empathy particularly when it comes to issues of depression. We tend to have the mindset, “if I’m going through a hard time and I’m ok, then what is your reason for being depressed? I am out of a job, you’re out of a job, I’m not trying to kill myself so why are you suicidal? I have my own issues to deal with, I don’t have the time or the energy to deal with yours.” That’s a typical response.
In some ways, it seems like it’s not a reality for us and a lot of Africans think that depression is a white man’s problem. It feels very foreign. Photography, especially, has the ability to put the reality of the situation straight in your face and help you to see that it is real and this is a problem maybe for even somebody that you know. On that level, I hoped that this project would help to teach people empathy, help people to realise that when a person says that they are depressed or are feeling anxious, it is not made up but rather that it’s a real issue that needs to be talked about.
It’s within those two realms that I think the arts are very well equipped to intervene. So, for me, yes, I do feel like there is a responsibility for artists to use our work to tackle issues like this that are not always palatable, and that in fact, our work is best suited to do so. I think it’s our responsibility as artists to use our voice and skills and talents to address issues like that.
Taking it a step further, I have recently been exploring art as a means of cleansing public policy. Again, if photography has the potential to affect on a deeply personal, emotional level then it’s possible that we can use it to have an effect on policy makers to help them to make policy decisions that actually help to alleviate the real issues and problems experienced by people.
I think you’re absolutely right and what you say certainly resonates with what we’ve tried to achieve with our This is Gender photography competition. We believe that images are key to shaping not only the way we see a situation but also in informing the ways that we respond to it. In turn, whether you are taking an image yourself or are distributing an image, there is a degree of responsibility that you have to critically reflect on the kinds of images you produce and share. The feedback we’ve had from both photographers who participated and visitors to our online exhibits has echoed the same sentiment.
I wonder, what kind of feedback have you received from your participating photographers and visitors to the site? Have you had much feedback that has made you feel that you were able to meet your purpose through this exhibition?
It is possible to be surprised by something you were hoping to happen, and I was surprised by both how quickly the feedback came and also what they were saying. I had whatsapps from the morning after the night I launched the project with people saying, “oh so depression in Africa is real, I thought it was only white people who experienced it.” We kept getting similar feedback. I remember getting a DM from someone who visited the site, and he told me he had been suffering from depression for a long time and that he had looked through the collection and that he felt lighter than he had in a long time just for knowing that there were other people going through what he’d gone through.
Similarly, for the photographers who contributed to the site, I know a lot of them hadn’t had their work featured in this kind of exhibition and the kinds of feedback they’ve received has been completely beyond what they’re used to. They have people contacting them to say that their work has affected them personally. In turn, their experience of the exhibition has made them feel, palpably, that their work can affect people and have a positive impact on people.
What incredible validation for your work to hear that the exhibition has tangibly affected people suffering from depression and alleviated some of their burden and similarly to know that people have come away thinking about mental health and its presence in society.
I understand that it may have been necessary because of lockdown, but I wonder whether having your exhibition online enabled more people to experience the work and whether the online format encouraged different kinds of conversations. What are your thoughts on exhibiting online, its potential and its limitations?
There are two ways to look at it. First, in regards to increasing accessibility and the range of people from around the world that can see the exhibitions, it’s been great. We’ve had visitors from everywhere, which is something that wouldn’t happen in a physical exhibition because you’re limited to the people who are physically able to see it, which is exciting.
However, I also feel that we are in front of our screens a lot of the time and that can be a problem. There is something about experiencing a picture in a full large print format, that brings it to life in a way that a screen can’t. So when designing the online exhibition, I tried to mimic that physical experience of standing in front of an image and feeling like you’re a part of it.
I think there is something completely unparalleled about a physical image. I am currently working on taking the exhibition on tour after travel restrictions are lifted. In designing the touring exhibition, one thing that I’m trying to do is to avoid galleries. Particularly here in Africa, we don’t go to galleries in general. There are certain people who enjoy going to galleries, but the average Nigerian do not go to galleries. So what I want to do is take the exhibition to places where people are. I’m exploring the idea of having installations in malls- there is a very vibrant mall culture in Nigeria and lots of people go to malls.
I want to instal the works in the walkways and have a team of volunteers who know the material and are trained to speak about issues of mental health to engage people on the topic of mental health. I think that approach to exhibiting would overcome the problem of getting people to see it. For those who don’t go to galleries, we go to them. That’s the next phase of this project, take it to where people are.
I love that, ‘taking it to where people are’. I really hope you are able to take your exhibition abroad and look forward to following the development of this important and exciting project.