Jameisha Prescod is used to documenting her life – and health – on social media. The London filmmaker and journalist, who lives with the long-term condition, lupus, runs a popular Instagram account, You Look Okay To Me, which she calls “a digital space for the #chronicillness people”, as well as a Youtube channel of the same name. She has guested on HuffPost UK’s podcast, Chronic and recently won a positive impact award for her work.
Now Prescod can add the 2021 Wellcome Photography Prize to the list. This annual showcase champions visual stories that focus on issues of our time – 31 photographers made this year’s shortlist, but it’s Prescod who received top honours for a powerful self-portrait, entitled ‘Untangling’, taken at home and showing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on her mental health.
Lockdown has transformed many of our bedrooms and front rooms into mini offices, making it difficult for us to escape. But Prescod tells HuffPost UK she was inspired to take this photo to show a “real moment” and that she wanted her image to capture the idea of finding peace amongst the chaos.
“It’s where I work a full-time job, eat, sleep, catch up with friends and most importantly cry,” she says of the bedroom where she shielded for months and where, increasingly, she found herself “drowning in the clutter”.
The pandemic has seriously impacted the nation’s mental health. Research by the charity Mind found that more than half of adults (60%) and over two-thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown.
Prescod was part of those statistics. “That mess in the room is real – it’s not set design. I was in a deep depression while taking that photograph, a depression I’m still trying to emerge from. But whenever I find myself in a low mood, knitting has given me a sense of calm. I wanted to capture the rawness of mess and imperfection,” she says of her prize-winning image.
Highlighting her own mental health issues wasn’t something she’d intended to do. “When setting up the camera, I was doing it for myself,” she explains. “I wanted to push through the shame I felt for living in such a cluttered space.
“I love documentaries and I was particularly inspired by a short, self-shot movie by director Mati Diop called In My Room. She documents her pandemic experience while connecting with her grandmother. I loved the rawness and honesty of it and wanted to do something similar with photography.”
It was only when she saw her photograph that Prescod realised it captured “something that other people may be dealing with”.
“Shame is a powerful emotion. Sometimes it takes sharing stories, sharing art or sharing images for us, as human beings, to overcome it.”
In it, she wants people to see a pandemic experience that doesn’t make them feel they have been underperforming. “I originally thought I would come out of the pandemic with a new set of skills and maybe become fluent in French,” she admits. “That didn’t happen. I struggled a lot physically and mentally. Knitting truly has been a helpful lifeline for me so I wanted to show that.”
Initially, she wavered over sharing the photograph. “I didn’t want to originally. But I decided to push through the shame, because if it helps someone whose room is also quite chaotic due to depression feel less alone, then it’s worth it. Shame is a powerful emotion. Sometimes it takes sharing stories, sharing art or sharing images for us as human beings to overcome it.”
While often the subject of her own photographs, Prescod says she is naturally incredibly shy. “I started taking photographs as a teen as a way to avoid being in the photos with my friends. With time I’ve found it easier to be the subject of some of my work. It’s actually a fun challenge to try and present the lens through which I see myself to other people.
“And obviously, we’re in a pandemic. It left time for a lot of self-reflection while being isolated from friends, family, and co-workers.”
Despite winning the Wellcome prize for ‘Untangling’, Prescod thinks it is difficult to capture an image that focuses on mental health – or indeed chronic illness. “I think it’s really hard to capture anything to do with a condition that is invisible. Whether it’s physical or mental,” she says. “How do you actually represent the complexities of what’s going on in your mind with a photograph?”
When people see her photo, she wants them to know that we all have different struggles. “When it comes to sharing images of ourselves, we want to look our best, so most people don’t get to see the truth of what we’re going through. This is a small moment of my truth.
“Ideally, I’d hope someone would see it and think ’oh wow, someone else is a bit of a mess as well and it’s okay, I don’t have to have everything all figured out”. I’ll be honest though, I was absolutely terrified putting this image out.”
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).