How do you show how it feels to self-harm?
Daniel Regan tells us about the powerful images in Threshold, his project about self-harm. Made as part of a commission for Science Gallery London and their exhibition HOOKED, which explores addiction in all its guises.
I wanted to explore my personal relationship to non-suicidal self-injury. I started self-harming when I was 14 and it continued through to my early 30s. A lot of my work is deeply personal and I use photography to understand the complexities of life. I had shied away from my self-harm in the past but felt that this commission was an opportunity to create work that could have a profound impact not only on me, but on others via an exhibition exploring addictive behaviours of all kinds.
Initially I was nervous about creating something so personal because I felt apprehensive about what it might stir up. The difficulty of making intensely emotional work is the possibility for it to throw up difficult feelings in the making and reflecting process, no matter how beneficial the overall process can be. It also felt quite different to a lot of my personal projects that come out of an instinctual need to create, compared to being commissioned for the work. There was a level of anxiety about creating such personal work from the onset, knowing that it would be going on gallery walls. In the past I’d steered clear of making work about self-injury because it’s a complex and misunderstood subject. I also couldn’t have made this work if I was still actively self-harming as I wouldn’t have had the emotional distance from the work to have the periods of reflection I needed.
I’ve always felt very comfortable with the scars on my body so felt very clear that I didn’t want the work to be about scarring or showing the physicality of my body. What fascinates me about self-injury is the internal physiology, the change in chemicals in the brain, the feeling that it produces that can be so powerful.
I was fortunate to receive an artist grant from Create Recovery, a charity that supports artists in recovery, and bought a projector to work with. I was really fascinated by the use of lights across the body, metaphorically mapping out that emotional journey. I was working with found/distorted images and also images created in Photoshop, experimenting with technique for a long time. Logistically, it was difficult to shoot - I like to be alone when I make personal work and balancing a projector, connected to a computer with a camera on a tripod while moving your body in and out of the frame, can be tricky. The process was slow and at times maddening but I grew to like it. The slower pace often made me pause and reflect on my identity as someone who self-harms. I normally shoot alone because I feel most comfortable working with these odd setups when others aren’t around. I can get lost in just experimenting without having to justify choices or someone giggling at me posing in awkward positions to get the shot.
The first image that I was happy with really represented that hot burning rage that can sear through your veins. It was a difficult image to make and I had to be cautious to take breaks and exercise self-care. When I first saw that shot it both stood out to me as an image that I felt represented the experience, but it was also very difficult to look at. I had a direct bodily response to it: my temperature started to soar and I felt fuzzy headed, knowing I’d touched on something. I was frustrated that I couldn’t carry on working but also needed to make sure I was taking care of myself. I packed up early and took the journey home to slow down and focus on something lighter.
In making the work it became important for me to represent the complexity of the self-injury experience. The reality is that self-injury is an incredibly powerful act that provides such an intense release, often unrivalled by other behaviours. I began to explore colours, shapes and elements of light across the body to represent that euphoric feeling that one can experience. Self-injury is in no way a positive behaviour, but it’s undoubtedly powerful, which is part of why people return to it in the absence of more positive behaviours.
I sometimes dabble in video and recognised the limitations of working with the still image. I started to make short film clips using lights refracted on to my body. There was something meditative about the process: silently breathing as the dazzling lights dappled across my skin, whilst my mind reflected and processed thoughts. The resulting silent film charts the rise and fall of the breath, the vulnerability of skin, with the softness of light rippling across the body. There were a few moments where I’d catch myself laughing at the setup I’d created to create the videos: my bed covered in tin foil, with a projector pointed down at the foil, refracting the lights up on to my body. I like to think I’ve always been resourceful with what I’ve got!
I think making the work enabled me to understand a bit more about my self-harm journey, through not only research but also conversations with friends and other artists. Previously I had preferred not to acknowledge incidents of self-harm, but the project forced me to talk about what it feels like during and after those episodes. It helped me to be more open about it and in turn share that with the wider world.
Making the work helped me to frame the self-injury journey as a transitional experience. It reminded me that our feelings are fluid, they rise and fall as our brains flood with fascinating chemical changes. Whilst the scars I have are permanent (and I love my scars), the project symbolises the changeability of our emotional experiences.
Producing the work allowed me to talk more openly with friends and family, as well as contribute to the media about self-harm through interviews. A huge part of my work is process driven. I’m endlessly curious about how making images will change how I feel about a certain issue, and creating Threshold has given me a sense of ease in letting go of something that felt so core to my identity in the past.