“People don’t like change, especially changing attitudes,” notes Dallas Cherish photographer Kay Norman, speaking of society’s lack of ability to adapt to the changes around them. As someone who has gone through many illnesses, she believes that a more open and transparent discussion of topics is needed. Layers of Symptoms tries to visually fill this gap.
Taboo topics are often difficult to bring up in conversation, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Using her photographs, Cherisha Kay Norman takes self-portraits to spread awareness of the various mental illnesses she has gone through. This is not a topic that everyone is comfortable discussing, so it takes a concerted effort from all of us to change this. It is difficult to achieve this when many sufferers do it silently.
Primary photography equipment used by Cherisha Kay Norman
Cherisha told us:
- Canon 70D
- Sigma 30mm f1.4 lens
- Tripod K&F Concept S211
“[the Sigma 30mm lens] has a slightly wider angle than most prime lenses and I love how well it performs in low light where I can capture more atmospheric shots.”
Foblog: Hi, Cherisha. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Cherisha Kay Norman: Hello. I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in Dallas. I took up photography after graduating from high school and took myself a year to take a break from high school life as well as recover and come to terms with being diagnosed with Bipolar 1 after my first manic episode in high school. During this time, I became very bored with having so much free time and began to notice Texas sunsets and the skyline more. I would take a point and shoot and try to capture the sunsets I saw, and then I would gradually gravitate towards photographing the plant life around my house as well as still lifes. It took a couple of years before I started experimenting with portraits, the more comfortable I became with the camera.
The Phoblographer: The word “symptoms” in the title indicates that something is wrong. What is the general idea of your series Layers of Symptoms?
Cherisha Kay Norman: The series basically tries to depict the visual representation of the sensations of various types of mental illness, from anxiety, depression, dissociation, mania, and even psychosis. I created the double exposure effect in Photoshop because, as a person with a chronic mental illness, I feel like I’m detaching myself from myself in several ways. It is difficult to see yourself and the present moment clearly, which can be a very disorienting and frustrating experience. Also, the symptoms of mental illness are not just symptoms; they are a reaction to something happening inside or outside, the underlying issues that cause these symptoms can be genetics, trauma, environmental problems, or other factors. I believe that the underlying problems that cause mental illness have many layers. I called this series “Symptom Layers” because the longer these underlying issues are left unaddressed, the more symptoms of mental illness begin to emerge and build up like layers.
The Phoblographer: When did you decide you wanted to create this series? Was there anything that you observed in someone close to you?
Cherisha Kay Norman: It was inspired by my own experience. I have been hospitalized 9 times due to my mental health and now I use photography as a form of therapy to visually depict what I am experiencing inside of me. I feel that photography is a great source of storytelling without words and it helps me to be present during the creative process. I feel that mental illness definitely needs more understanding in the world and I can only try to help by sharing my own experience in my art.
But the truth is that equipment doesn’t really matter, you can get great images if you know how to use what you have to your advantage.
The Phoblographer: The subject’s arms appear to move throughout the frames. What does this mean?
Cherisha Kay Norman: The movements of the hands are supposed to symbolize an overactive mind and nervous system during anxiety, dissociation, or even psychosis, when it is difficult to keep track of all one’s thoughts and feelings because they are so disorganized that they become disorienting.
The Phoblographer: What feedback has this series received so far?
Cherisha Kay Norman: I don’t believe I’ve ever really delved into the depths of this series’ meaning before. I know that those who are fans of my photography appreciate its aesthetics, but I’m not sure if anyone has really tried to analyze the visual representation before. I have received only positive feedback for this series of self-portraits.
I’m shocked that people can only take pictures with a phone camera, compared to some books, I often find these images more impressive because it shows that the eye of the artist, not the equipment, creates an effective image.
The Phoblographer: Anxiety and depression are not considered mental illnesses in some societies. Why do you think it is so difficult for some people to accept these daily battles that people calmly face?
Cherisha Kay Norman: I’m not very knowledgeable about cultures and societies that don’t accept the scientific evidence for mental health. But as someone from a religious background where mental health topics were considered taboo, I think the lack of education plays an important role; but I also noticed that there is a fear of responsibility and the unknown. People do not like change, especially if they change their views, if their current views are familiar to them and serve them in some way. It is difficult to convince someone to accept a new point of view, especially if it is uncomfortable for them. Mental illness is messy and uncomfortable, which also leads to inconvenience because the person needs support during these episodes of mental disability. In most cultures, it is accepted that the expression of human suffering and emotions is considered weakness, because people do not want to face this discomfort. It takes a collective effort and support to make the new perspective of life convenient and accessible to all, and getting enough influencers to push the new way of life is simply not easy. People suffer quietly for fear of being ostracized and judged, and often do not want to be felt and seen as a burden.
The Phoblographer: What is it like for a creative artist to deal with mental illness and expect them to produce interesting work?
Cherisha Kay Norman: I dealt with manic psychosis, which is a complete disconnect from reality, crippling depression, anxiety and dissociation. I think it’s important not to hide that part of yourself. As a creative person, I feel like I’m doing my best work when I’m being honest and trying to visualize the topics I know on a personal level, or at least doing the work I’m most proud of because I’m not trying to hide my human experience. Despite how it may be perceived by others, I believe there is power in radical honesty when it comes to art.
The Phoblographer: Mental illness is often considered a taboo subject. What can photographers do to spread the word and get more people talking about it?
Cherisha Kay Norman: Photography is a kind of storytelling tool; I believe that if a photographer wants to touch on the subject of mental illness and mental health, wants to express what they are going through, or is trying to give a voice to someone else, I think they are really listening to what you or they are feeling and trying to visualize this is. may I help. Although, to be honest, for me, creativity is a kind of meditation, and I love to improvise. I may have an idea for an image that pops up in my head and may not know why I want to create it, but once the images are created, the feelings behind the visuals give me the message that I feel they are trying to portray. Sometimes art knows what it wants to say before you; it just asks you to create it first before it tells you the actual value. This usually works when you are trying to convey your personal experience. When it comes to trying to give someone else a voice, it takes a collaborative effort. I definitely believe that deep communication and education, respect, empathy and creativity are really the keys to creating something spectacular! Because I think striving for an accurate and honest portrayal is very important when it comes to any kind of expression and storytelling.