Exposure therapy: Natural Connections exhibition

Exposure therapy: Natural Connections exhibition
by Allan LEONARD
17 June 2021

Belfast Exposed launched its exhibition, “Natural Connections”, which showcases 60 shortlisted images, from over 1,400 received. The competition ran earlier this year, asking people to submit images that represented connections with nature, which “sustained, surrounded, supported, and encouraged people and communities” during the pandemic.

At the launch event, Deirdre Robb (Chief Executive, Belfast Exposed) explained the background of the exhibition: “We got a phone call one day from Arts & Business Northern Ireland — they’re a very good organisation that supports the arts and connects businesses. They said that Translink were looking to deliver a project that marked the first anniversary of COVID, [one that] met with their values.”

She continued by stating how Translink’s care about the environment and wellbeing of people matched that of Belfast Exposed, which is developing a mental health and wellbeing programme: “We found that people connected with nature; it was one of the best ways for them to actually feel better about themselves, whether they were going on a walk or even in their home environment.”

Robb said that they didn’t want a project that was restricted to just those that were able to get outdoors: “Some people were shielding, and actually some people were able to take photographs within their own home [to show how] nature connected with them.” A shortlisted image by Patricio Cassinoni, of a woman sitting indoors surrounded by plants, is a good example.

Image © Patricio CASSINONI

She expressed gratitude to the judging panel, which included Professor Siobhan O’Neill (Interim Mental Health Champion), Heather McLachlan (Director for Northern Ireland, National Trust), Gordon Milligan (Deputy CEO, Translink), and Robb herself: “We worked together. We had like mindedness. We all had our comments to make, but the consensus in the room was really good — the joy — because we were looking at such amazing images; it was such a pleasure.”

Robb then presented the six finalists with a high-quality print of their photograph: Niall Boyle, Patricio Cassinoni, Laura Kelly, Joanne Monteith, Janice Reid, and Alix Ross.

Image: “Sunrise at Murlough Beach” © Laura Kelly @5degreeswest

The winning image was “Sunrise at Murlough Beach”, by Laura Kelly, who said that she learned about the competition through Belfast Exposed’s promotion on social media. She lived in England for 10 years before returning home, just when the lockdown began. Since her return, she said that she has a renewed appreciation for nature; she used to walk about the hills and forests of lower County Down when she was younger, with her grandmother. Kelly added that she started taking photos because “like my mum, my memory is terrible”; the images became a sort of visual diary.

For the past year, Kelly said that her favourite parts have been getting out for a hike with her camera, “because I’m getting exercise, I’m going somewhere beautiful, and I’m getting to take pictures. And it’s always different. Like the tides always make whatever scene it is completely different … You never know what you’re going to get. You never know who you’re going to meet as well.”

Image: “Rainbow at Cave Hill” © Niall Boyle Photography

Niall Boyle, another finalist, spoke about his participation. He viewed the competition as a challenge, “just to see if you’re doing anything worthwhile … and it gives you a focus.” He was pleased to have five of his entries shortlisted in the anonymous selection.

Boyle said that he mostly makes landscape images. What surprised him about his shortlisted images — all landscapes — was that most of them had people in it; he didn’t go out to photograph people, but recognised that “it adds that extra interest”.

“Rainbow on Cave Hill” was made during a family walk on New Year’s Day: “It was one of those ones when we left the house, the sun was shining and it was lovely. The minute we started walking, we could see rain clouds coming through. Two minutes before that photo was taken, we were dumped on, absolutely soaked. Just as we got up to the top, I turned right and hey, presto, sunshine and over the hills and in the distance, a rainbow. Bingo.”

Boyle saw such walks as a self-evident form of stress relief from his school teaching, much of which was conducted online during the lockdown. However, he explained that for other members of his family, a lack of focus meant that at times he had to persuade them to get outdoors. Coping with the pandemic “was tough”, he said, adding, “I think it was easier for me than it was for the rest of them.”

On the back of his satisfaction with his participation in this competition, Boyle is encouraged to meet other self-imposed challenges. One is to make images of people, places, and nature of Divis and the Black Mountain: “Two years in, I still haven’t finished.” We discussed how nerve wracking it can be to approach people, but at the same time, he said, “it is amazing how many people are prepared to stop … they’ve all been very fine, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem.’ Is it exposure therapy? You just have to keep doing it until eventually you’re fine with it?”

It is fair to say that all of the participants tapped into a courage to explore how they connected with their natural environment during the social stress of the pandemic. The camera can be a very useful tool for individual therapy, and through the exhibition of shortlisted images, we can reflect on our collective human response.

“Natural Connections” exhibition at Belfast Exposed runs from 17th June to 17th July 2021.

Image by Belfast Exposed used by license.

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