Please note that this piece contains discussion of suicide.
It was pouring with rain when I made my way to the Scottish Storytelling Centre for Edinburgh-based photographer Graham Williams’ TALK exhibition, and I was like a drowned rat when I entered the exhibition space. Yet, I couldn’t resist looking at the images before peeling off my sodden waterproof coat. The photographs are arresting – open, perhaps even confrontational – and you are irresistibly drawn to meet eyes with the twelve men whose portraits are on display.
The TALK project began in March 2023 and it’s an ongoing means by which Williams is exploring men’s mental health and how we talk about it. It is his hope that this project and the featured stories might get more men talking about their mental health. The necessity of this is printed boldly on the wall above the twelve photos:
Three times as many men as women die by suicide. Only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men. 40% of men have never spoken to anyone about their mental health.
Indeed, suicide is the single largest cause of death for UK men under the age of 50. However, there’s still a huge amount of stigma and taboo in the way that we talk about it or, rather, don’t talk about it. Something that I have learned from See Me and Mental Health Foundation, and that’s clear from this project, is that it’s okay to talk about suicide. In fact, if someone is feeling suicidal, then asking about it gives them permission to open up and they are likely to feel a sense of relief.
The photographs showcase an eclectic collection of men of all ages and backgrounds, and the stories that they share are similarly varied. I don’t want to spoil the experience of reading these stories for yourself, so will simply summarise that there are stories about grief, violence, toxic masculinity; and stories about the power of nature, wild swimming, and the transformative power of peer support and organisations such as Men Matter Scotland and Andy’s Man Club. Crucially, there’s a common thread that runs through them all: the importance of talking.
Graham has his own experience of mental health issues – having experienced depression and anxiety since he was around 16. He says it’s taken until much more recently for him to speak about this, and that he’s seen how helpful it can be to do so. Speaking to the people he has photographed for TALK has been a cathartic process for him and one that he sees as helpful for his own mental health journey.
Interestingly, Graham told me that he has always found portraiture a challenge, but that this project allowed him to make a connection with his subject and – having spent that time together – he was able to photograph them in a way that felt more successful. I wonder if the photos being taken after the conversation between artist and interviewee accounts for the openness and frankness that you see in the portraits. Each photograph has an extract from the subject’s story beside it, and a QR code that you can scan to access their full narrative. It’s incredibly powerful to look into the eyes of the people who are sharing these stories.
The exhibition is on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh until Sunday 29 October and is completely free. Williams urges people who would like to participate to complete a form on the TALK project website or contact him via Instagram. This exhibition is just the start of a conversation that he intends to keep going, and one that has the potential to make a significant contribution to encouraging more conversation about men’s mental health.
Rachel Alexander is a Talking Heads volunteer who lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.