Writer Hélène Kleih’s recently released, very personal, anthology HIM + HIS shows how we can harness creativity for change
Every day we are inundated with thousands of images – visuals that dictate how we perceive reality. For men, tropes of masculinity embedded in visual culture drastically shape mental health by dictating how to be a man; strong, inexpressive, hard working, money making. Parallel this with the fact that suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45, and the constant enforcement of these roles becomes more dangerous than ever. But as the world steps towards a more fluid future, thankfully photography’s role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes is changing. It is now being used more often as a tool for liberation from these stereotypes, with more men experimenting with their expression, emotions, and aesthetics.
This is certainly the case in HIM + HIS, a recently released 500-page anthology on the contemporary state of male mental health. Produced by London based writer Hélène Kleih, HIM + HIS features hundreds of submissions across poetry, paintings, illustration, and photography that explore male mental health from various angles, while strengthening creativity’s link to the liberation of the mind. Submissions include work from artist Akinola Davies, filmmaker IGGY LDN, poet Wilson Oreyama, and make-up artist Athena Paginton. For Kleih, the book is deeply personal as an ode to her brother who was diagnosed with psychosis in 2014, and who now is institutionalised full time. “The problematic discourse around men and mental health reinforces the prejudice and the stereotypes in place that drag the male self and ego into the ground,” Kleih writes in its opening pages.
“The problematic discourse around men and mental health reinforces the prejudice and the stereotypes in place that drag the male self and ego into the ground” – Hélène Kleih
The importance of Kleih’s epic is as multidimensional as its contents. Its aim is to address mental health at the roots, while also focusing on the intersectionality of race and male mental health, especially the lack of focus on the experiences of black men. It commemorates the strength of the men involved, while also acknowledging the importance of the people surrounding them; friends, family, and women alike. Above all, HIM + HIS is a place of freedom where men are able to express what they want about their mental health, exactly how they want to express it.
Today, HIM + HIS launches for distribution via Antenne Books so below we chat to Kleih about the role of creativity in mental health, why it’s important we allow men to express, and how we can drive the state of mental health forward.
Photography plays a really important role in HIM + HIS. What role do you think it plays in male mental health more widely?
Hélène Kleih: Not just photography but creativity, in general, restores an agency that was once lost. Let’s look at this through the lens of self-portraits. HIM + HIS features a series called A collection of small things I can’t say with words by artist Arran Horton. The series features Arran in a range of self-portraits where he’s almost playing all different characters. They’re funny, from dormant ones to mirror shots where he is analysing himself, the series being a way for him to explore his own identity.
In the conservation between him and his girlfriend about the series, Arran talks about the difficulty in talking openly saying, ‘it almost gets ugly when I talk about this shit, this is why I say I always fuck things up, I never seem to be able to rationally talk about it, I work myself into a state.’ This is what I find photography means in the book – instead of language, it’s a new mode of expression when there isn’t one already readily available to express yourself. Language isn’t necessarily vocal, its expression and you can create new forms of it.
The collaboration between make-up artist Athena Paginton and photographer Piczo are so impactful…
Hélène Kleih: These images went viral on Instagram. Athena Paginton face-painted these guys in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily be represented. The series creates impact because it shows all of these different identities, but race isn’t at the forefront because there’s so much colour on the face already. That means a lot when we consider mental health, especially with males and how even the discussion about mental health tries to put people into boxes. That’s exactly what HIM + HIS is trying to move away from, from the categorisation of men within institutions when no person or facets of their identity can ever really be categorised.
How do you think photography opens the scope for stereotypes of masculinity and being a man?
Hélène Kleih: There’s so much I could talk about. It’s not necessarily photography, but let’s look at IGGY LDN’s film Black Boys Don’t Cry. I asked IGGY the meaning behind using the colour blue for the film and he said that blue was really important because he didn’t want to change the dynamic of manhood. This way, aesthetically, audiences wouldn’t see it as any different to what they already knew and they could relate to it. But he’s still playing within the confines of what’s aesthetically manly or boyish.
The film shows men that are vulnerable and naked, but their black bodies are also still very masculine, in regards to how society defines masculinity. IGGY talks a lot about slavery and the black boy that never cried and he displays a historical vulnerability as well. These men are handling the trauma of their ancestors that still relates to their present, not only how they see themselves but how they think society sees them. All of this informs so much of how they deal with their masculinity and mental health. Boys like my brother, regardless of their upbringing and background, were always told in some respect to be the black boy that has to be strong, a boy that doesn’t have, and will never have that emotional scope.
How do you think what men see everyday, whats surrounding them with advertising and magazines, impacts their mental health?
Hélène Kleih: It’s getting better but I think it’s still very performative. We still have antiquated notions of what being masculine means. Clothing is becoming more fluid but I worry that now there is a focus on performative superficial outerwear where nobody is focussing on what they actually feel from expressing themselves. Being expressive doesn’t have to come from material things and there’s this message that vulnerability is associated with a certain way of dressing. But you can still be a construction worker and be vulnerable. But see, even as I speak I play into the stereotypes, so that’s what I’m trying to move away from in the book. There are so many different professions and backgrounds and identities. For example, early on in HIM + HIS there’s this piece focused on men’s health in the Punjabi community, an organisation called Taraki. There is complete diversity of Punjabi men who have come forward with their testimonies, and it is encouraging to others that there is at least one person with a similar story or feeling to them.
In your opinion, what do think the most alarming thing about male mental health is in the UK right now?
Hélène Kleih: The suicide rates. It’s always going to be the suicide rates. The focus has to be on prevention rather than the medication, as helpful as is it is, on addressing the root before the rot. Too often mental health is spoken about after the tragedy has happened. For example, with celebrities like Robin Williams – to have this facade his whole life being a comedian whilst actually its most of the comedians that are the ones suffering the most. Most of the people who are joyous on the outside are suffering. There’s no one way to suffer, there are so many people going through things that aren’t talked about, but whether in silence or in facade, the mind is still fragile.
Also, there’s an alarming rate of black boys committing suicide that’s not talked about enough and men in immigrant communities. I’m not saying there is more shame around in these men but in general in our society, it’s necessary to focus on someone’s identity. It’s always a very hetero white man as the face of the campaign or the tragedy. Other than that we don’t really see stories of young black men. Not killing each other, but themselves. That’s not talked about enough.
Intersectionality between migrant communities and mental health is also something largely excluded...
Hélène Kleih: With immigrants from whatever country they come from, there’s this focus on monetary success and to survive for your family, but never really yourself. If you don’t do this then you haven’t fulfilled your manliness or your purpose. That’s what HIM + HIS is trying to move away from, like pieces by Abdourahman Njie and Donald Gjoka. You can have your purpose in other things, creativity. That’s why my brother got sectioned, because he thought he had this purpose to study and he could never do that. He wasn’t built like that, we are all built differently.
What do you think we can be doing daily as a community to help men with their mental health?
Hélène Kleih: I think mental health is very social. We should be starting a conversation that’s more substantial. We shouldn’t necessarily be asking forceful questions like ‘hey tell me your feelings and open up’, because that’s not what every man wants to do and that’s also not regarding every version of a man or every version of masculinity. It’s more just simply asking how are you or what is the way that you want to express yourself – it’s about facilitating a conversation, and letting, even the word letting is problematic, but letting the individual express themselves in however and whatever way they want. It’s about encouraging agency. This is essentially what the book is about. By collating the experiences of so many different people I hope somehow, someone could relate to at least one submission.
When I spoke to my brother he told me this guy on his ward wanted a copy of the book. Someone who had never spoken two words to my brother but he saw what he was reading and asked for one. And he loved it. Thats all I really want from HIM + HIS. It’s a foundation for a larger support network. I’m just facilitating a discussion and it’s men themselves that are organising things.