Talking Heads reporter Ella Duncan interviewed Patrick Keast about his exhibition Disconnected, which continues at Cyrenians’ Flavour and Haver Cook School in Edinburgh until Friday 31st May, as part of SMHAF 2019.

Patrick Keast has an exhibition of his photography showing at Cyrenians, a fitting location as it was through the Cyrenians Addiction Recovery programme that Patrick first realized he had a talent for photography. Disconnected deals with themes of dispossession and exclusion, and the way that people can often be ignored by society and fall through the cracks. Many of Patrick’s photos were taken on the way to and from his addiction appointments, and show a stark juxtaposition between people who have, and those who have not.

Mental health issues are often strongly linked to addiction issues, and both are still surrounded by a level of stigma. With his photography, Patrick hopes to challenge these pre-conceived ideas, provoke a reaction of kindness in the viewer and to “make people think again.” I spoke to Patrick on the day the exhibition opened, hoping get a more in depth perspective on the exhibition and the themes displayed.

You started by taking photographs going to and from your addiction appointments. Can you explain what the decision was behind this?

It was just handy. It was available, something I could carry with me. It wasn’t part of any plan; I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything. It was just one of those choices someone makes, like learning to play the guitar. You just pick something up, and go with it!

You began by using second hand equipment out of necessity, do you still?

I’ve upgraded my equipment as I’ve went. So I’ve got into a more pro-spec range of equipment now. It was along the lines of reward and success; for example if I got an exhibition put together then I thought ‘Well, I should buy a more expensive camera’. Always trying to improve in different ways, and a new camera and a lens gives you more creative choices. Every time I made progress I thought ‘Well, I’ll invest in that’.

Why do you think it is important to document the things you photograph?

For me every photograph’s got a memory attached to it, it’s a place in time that I remember. For me personally, looking at that photograph brings back that day to me. So it might have been a day for example I went to an appointment, or attended a recovery meeting, or came out of hospital, or an interview with the benefits agency. Before and after, I’d be taking pictures. Because there’s a connection with that memory, it helps me have a narrative in my head when I reflect back on things. I’ve built stories about other people’s recovery also, rehab courses, graduations, days out, events etc.

Do you think it’s important for people who aren’t in recovery to see your photographs?

It’s things that people pass by, on the street, basically shut out, tune out. Don’t wanna see it, don’t wanna hear about it. People will make judgments about who they see and the condition they’re living in. Basically a lot of victim blaming.

But bringing it into a photograph, what I hope to create is very empathic images, so it’ll stir something in the viewer and they’ll get an emotional response instead of a negative response. They’ll have some kind of feeling for a fellow human being who is basically in trouble, deep, deep trouble.

I don’t know about changing peoples behaviors, as that’s not my role, but I think if there’s a shift in someone’s perception their feelings will be a bit different, and their reactions will change.

You’ve said you find taking photographs “liberating”. In what ways do you find it liberating?

It’s liberating because it’s an altered state of mind from the regular A to B. You’re in a creative zone in your brain, you’re engaging with your sight, your senses, your perception, three dimensional space. Looking at things with a fresh perspective. I’m engaging with my environment in a different way. Instead of having that sort of hyper-vigilance where I’m looking for trouble – I’m looking for a photograph.

Do you feel that photography has helped your mental health?

Yeah, immensely, yeah. It’s given me a form of self-expression. I get to share some of my experiences through photography. It gets me out of self-destructive thought modes; it gets me out of low moods, when I can’t be bothered.

It takes me out of my regular, day-to-day 9-5. My ordinary everyday concerns kinda diminish. So I believe it helps with tension and stresses building up over time. If I go out and have a break from that, when I come back to the tensions and stresses, they’ve actually gone down. Things aren’t as grim as I’ve made out. Having that mental pause, a change of place, a change of pace – whatever issue I was concerned about kind of processes in the background.

Do you think art is good for breaking down barriers on subjects like mental health, which can be difficult to talk about?

People might have certain prejudices about what mental health is and how mental health issues affect people. If you see someone who has had mental health issues, addiction issues and you can see some great artwork they’ve done, you’ll think differently about that person. Plus you’ll get a message. This person

is relating to me through art, through media, through photography. Could be poetry, could be sculpture. People might think ‘Oh, I didn’t know lads and lassies like that could even do something like that’.

Do you think this project can challenge those prejudices and stigmas – especially around addiction and recovery?

Rather than just being photography, it’s the photographer. I don’t make any secret of the fact that I’m in recovery, that I’ve had addiction issues, that I’m rebuilding my life.

Part of the stigma is the shame, because people don’t want to talk about it. It brings down the stigma because I’m not being secretive, shameful or hiding my past. That’s liberating it itself and people can feel a bit freer to talk about where they’ve been, what their life journey has been and what’s brought them to where they are today.

It [mental health] doesn’t define me, it’s not the biggest and most important thing in my life, but it is something I think needs to be shared. I felt my photography needed to be shared.

Finally, the theme of this year’s festival is ‘Connection’. What does connection mean to you?

The type of relationships you have, especially societal relationships and how you relate to the society you live in, the culture you’re part of. The more positive relationships you have within the society you live in, the more connected you are. Once they start dropping off- then you’re disconnected. You don’t have those positive relationships, everything’s dysfunctional, everything a problem.

How we come to understand who we are is in the way we connect with other people.

Patrick’s exhibition is on at the Cyrenians Flavour and Haver Cook School until Friday 31st May. Click here to find out more.

Ella Duncan is a mum of two wee boys and lives in Edinburgh. She currently works at Santosa Yoga Studio as Promotions and Events Manager and writes for fun. She loves baking and running and meditating and Prince, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her on Instagram @bella_duncan_ella.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.