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'I wouldn’t be here today': How a camera helped one photographer overcome a difficult childhood

Jill Foster
·4-min read

Without photography, Daniel Regan is convinced he wouldn’t be alive today.

“As a young person I grew up in a chaotic and unstable home environment and I didn’t have the verbal language skills to express whether I was feeling frightened, vulnerable or depressed,” he says. “I was always very quiet and whenever mum tried to speak to me, I’d shut down.

“Then my grandfather gave me a camera at the age of 12 and suddenly I had a new ‘language’. I no longer had to use words to say how I was feeling but instead I could use photographs.

“I became obsessed with documenting every mundane part of life – even trips to the supermarket.

Read more: 'Get snapping': Why Rankin wants children to take photos to improve their mental health

“But if I ever needed to have a difficult conversation with mum, I’d show her one of my photographs and it allowed us to connect in a way we hadn’t before.

“It became such a therapeutic outlet that without it, I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today.’

Regan, 35, is now a photographer who runs an arts charity (freespaceproject.org) within the NHS in London. But it’s thanks to his childhood experience that he became involved with a new photography project aimed at 11 to 18 -year-olds.

Daniel Regan
A childhood experience led to photographer Daniel Regan becoming involved with a new project aimed at 11 to 18-year-olds. (Daniel Regan)

Called ‘Show and Tell’, it includes a series of online workshops – one of which is presented by Daniel – that encourage youngsters to use photography to explain how they are feeling during the global pandemic.

As a second national lockdown in England begins, organisers feel that the need to support youngsters’ mental health is greater than ever. They hope parents, teachers and carers will work alongside children on these workshops to help them through this difficult time.

“We really need to know how they are coping so that we can better support them now and in the future,” says Steve Wallington, one of the co-founders of the non-profit organisation The Photography Movement which is behind the project.

Read more: Celebrities help promote new guidance for parents to support child mental health

“Photography can be enormously therapeutic. It slows your breathing down, it’s meditative. This is a way for children to talk about isolation or loneliness and really express themselves in ways they may not have been able to do before.”

Regan agrees: “This is a scary time for adults so it must be very confusing for children. But photography really opens up your eyes to the world.

“I often go on ‘photowalks’ with my camera, capturing shards of light or something beautiful which catches my eye. I become more connected to the world around me. I often say ‘making’ photographs rather than ‘taking’ photographs because it’s not a passive thing, you really have to think and reflect.

“And that’s what we are hoping children will do to express how they are feeling, without actually having to say it.”

Smiling young girl tourist holding camera, isolated on yellow background
A series of online workshops called Show and Tell is encouraging youngsters to use photography to explain how they are feeling during the global pandemic. (Getty Images)

The project, which culminates in a national exhibition in 2021 only launched last month, but those taking part are already noticing the benefits.

“The Show and Tell project has given me an excellent platform to encourage pupils to express themselves through imagery,” says teacher Lisa Ward, who introduced the workshops to students at Maesteg School in South Wales.

“I shared the videos with other faculties who have used them as a conversation starter. This not only encourages pupils to start talking about mental health but it is improving pupil's confidence, communication skills and understanding.

“Our pupils have been extremely engaged with the whole programme and I am extremely proud of how mature they have been.”

Robin Warren, headteacher of Primrose Hill Primary School in north London, invested in 10 iPod Touches so that disadvantaged pupils could take part in Show and Tell and it’s already reaping rewards.

“We have always prioritised children, staff and parental mental health so we were delighted to be involved,” he says.

“For children to immerse themselves in media is wonderful at this age; and in doing something which is different, relaxing, gentle and individual compared to other areas of school – it’s win, win for me!

“The children’s early work – going for local walks and selecting meaningful images have been rewarding activities which have enabled them to work in the classroom as well as at home. There has been a real sense of calm and reflective production.”