Renée Rodenkirchen is a Toronto-based photographer and art director. No stranger to The Creator Class, Renée will be showing her latest series, “Submerged”, at Free Space beginning May 4th in support of Mental Health Week. More information about the exhibit itself can be found here.
I’m a director and photographer, but more recently I’ve been playing around with projections and multimedia installations. I grew up in Toronto, and have had a camera in my hand for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school I said I wanted to be a photographer or an art director like my dad. I went to university for general arts, eventually doing for masters in Fine Arts in Documentary Media. I remember thinking I wanted to be a lawyer for a hot second. I would’ve been an awful lawyer though.
For the past 4 years I’ve been doing all fashion, lifestyle and celebrity photography, which has been so fun and exciting, but at some point I feel like I hit a wall: who am I and what’s the message that I want to be putting out there? I needed to start figuring out how to keep doing my job, but then also find an avenue where I could work on some personal projects with more meaning. I left my full time job at Coveteur to go freelance so I would have time to work on some ideas that had been manifesting for years, but never had the time to work on.
Mental health has long since been a part of my family life, whether I was aware of it or not. When I was growing up, I was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD that later turned into anxiety and depression. We found ways to cope, but it was always a battle until I was in my early twenties, when I figured out how to deal with and treat my mental health issues through nutrition, exercise and taking the time to actually work through my shit.
Mental health has always been a central part of my life, whether I was aware of it or not.
When I was 26 two of my close friends were killed. This sent me into a super dark place for a few years while I was at school doing my Masters. In retrospect I think I was dealing with PTSD and I had no clue how to endure this very meaningful loss. I was overseas when they were killed, and I felt this extremely heavy weight of guilt. It seemed natural for me to explore mental health at a time when I was feeling really out of control and overwhelmed — in a way, I think it was a form of therapy for myself.
I first did a sample of my bathtub series while at school. It reflected this low point I was at in my life, and the struggle for those rare moments of breath and tranquility. I filmed myself underwater and projected the looped video of me underwater into an upright bathtub for a school presentation. The image of myself looped underwater for a long period of time was a really accurate depiction of how I felt in those times of crisis. I was surprised and excited by how it turned out, and it stuck with me for years.
After leaving my full time job, this project started to consume my thoughts. The imagery had resonated so deeply with me that I wanted to try it out again and see how other people reacted to it. At first I wanted to reach out to people within the mental health community whether that be through CAMH, community bulletin boards and/or word of mouth. But, the more I thought about the message I wanted to send, I realized this should be about people within my immediate network.
Mental health issues are something everyone is affected by in some respect — whether it’s through personal experience or through a family member, friend or co-worker. Keeping the subjects within my own community demonstrated how close it is to every person. So, the participants in this project are family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.
Mental health issues are something everyone is affected by — whether it’s through personal experience or through a family member, friend or co-worker.
The notion of crisis is the central theme in this project and it’s something I think everyone can relate to in some capacity. It’s not about the label of mental illness; it’s quite the opposite. It’s about community and breaking down the stigmatization of mental illness by showing the commonality of what a mental health break encompasses and whom it affects. We all experience crisis in varying degrees and through varying life experiences. We all also know the necessity and urgency of taking a breath to relieve what overwhelms us in our lives.
It’s great to be able to look at how far the acceptance of mental health within society has gotten on a macro scale, but from a personal standpoint I think the fear to express what your going through is still present. I was hesitant about how much I wanted to share in this project, for example. But, at the end of the day how can I ask people to participate and be vulnerable without putting myself out there?
Although mental health can be a struggle, I do I have to say that I don’t look at it as a negative thing — it’s a double edged sword. At times it makes life unbearable, but it also often comes with creativity and a different perspective on life and situations. We’re taught that it’s negative because it doesn’t fit into certain social norms. A kid with ADD/ADHD is deemed ‘special needs’ because they’re not quiet and passive. My mom told me that my teachers in elementary school wanted to put me in special education; they thought I was dumb because I couldn’t sit still and learn how to read the same way as the other kids. I wasn’t dumb — I was just different.
I think going to University and getting my masters was partially an F-you to those teachers that blamed me for my short-comings in school. Our system doesn’t support ‘different’ and in turn ‘different’ is labeled as a problem. I think it’s time to start challenging the negativity that surrounds mental health issues and start figuring out how ‘different’ can fit and be supported within our systems.
The only way we can accept the commonality of mental health issues is to keep talking about it and to share our own experiences without fear.