The struggle is real

Kayleigh Bollin highlights mental health challenges through her photography.

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With a new series of work, photographer Kayleigh Bollin has managed to present various aspects of mental illness pictorially. In her exhibit of 18 photos, “Making the Invisible Visible,” Bollin represents a number of psychological conditions such as anxiety, trauma, and depression, as well as issues such as rape, and teen drinking and driving, through manipulated black-and-white photos of models. Her work will hang at Featherstone through Jan. 27, and you can also see it on Instagram at instagram.com/bollin.photography.

Bollin is a high school senior who has already won a number of awards for her photography, including three honorable mentions in the 2020 Scholastic Art and Writing Competition. During the past year she decided to stage and shoot the “Invisible” series as a way to raise awareness of mental health issues. “I took a psych class last semester,” she says. “It really intrigued me how mental health and people’s behaviors affect us all. I struggle a lot with anxiety. Learning about mental health issues has helped me understand and help my friends and family.”

Two of her photos took first and second place in the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness, Cape Cod and Islands) “This is What Mental Health Means to Me” competition in 2020. That early recognition encouraged Bollin to create more images in the series, and her exhibit marks the relaunching (following a two-year COVID break) of Featherstone’s initiative to host solo shows by high school students.

In very creative ways, Bollin has managed to visually express some of the harmful thoughts that can plague those dealing with mental illness or other issues.

In “Voices” the photographer shows a young woman, her eyes covered with her hands, trying to block out voices that she hears in her head — represented by ghost images behind her. In the accompanying text, Bollin writes, “‘Voices’ is meant to represent adolescents who are coping with hallucinations as a result of trauma.”

For “Overpowering Thoughts.” the photographer juxtaposed identical mirrored images of a young woman screaming, so that it appears that the distressed woman is facing herself. As described in the text accompanying the piece, “The purpose of the unfocused girl on the right side is intended to represent the depressing thoughts the girl on the left side is trying to overcome.”

Similarly Bollin has depicted the stress that can result from obsessive social media posting. In the photo “Suffocating,” a model is shown surrounded by an avalanche of heart and thumbs-up emojis. For this image, Bollin has included a quote from a clinical psychologist: “Through likes and follows, teens are getting actual data on how much people like them and their appearance … and not having any break from that technology.”

In dealing with serious issues confronting young people today, Bollin has created some of the strongest images in the series. A grouping of photos titled “Choices” deals with teen drinking and driving by simulating bloodied victims of a car crash, along with the situations that led to the accident. It’s a very disturbing set of images but, as Bollin writes, “Encouraging younger people to think about drinking and driving shouldn’t scare them, but could benefit who they get in a car with and how they drive, which could save someone’s life.”

Perhaps the most compelling images deal with rape, and the shame and stigma that can follow a sexual assault. Bollin has used the device of covering her model’s face and body with black handprints to show how the trauma of an incident can remain with a victim long after the attack. In one of the sexual assault images, Bollin surrounded the victim with typical disparaging or justifying quotes such as “Just move on” and “You were asking for it.” Bollin also makes the point that men, as well as women, can be victims of rape.

“I included descriptions with all of my photographs to get across the point I’m trying to make on the issue that I’m addressing,” says Bollin. It’s a very dramatic series and a courageous move on the young photographer’s part to try to raise awareness through her art.

Bollin has been pursuing photography since she was 12 years old and her father gifted her with a camera. She credits her uncle, a professional photographer who lives on the Cape, with inspiring her.

Bollin notes that her primary interest is in portraiture and staged images. In her website bio she writes, “I have found that I like photographing people more than anything. I find it more fun and interesting to play with different poses, props, and emotions. I enjoy telling stories about people’s real lives or issues through photography.”

In a phone interview she elaborated on this thought. “With people you get to show emotions,” she says. “You get to tell a story. I think it’s really interesting that you can tell a story with one photograph.”

The born-and-raised Vineyarder has already launched a career, shooting a wedding and a number of senior portraits last year. She serves as editor-in-chief for the MVRHS yearbook. Bollin will graduate early and will attend college this fall, majoring in either photography or advertising and marketing.