Finding the Space Between Words

By Lucy-Jane Walsh

Several months ago, while I was filming the proceedings of the People in Disasters Conference, I took a short break to wander around the conference hall and examine the posters that had been placed on the walls. Most of these were research posters – studies on anxiety, diabetes, and other health-related issues people face in post-disaster environments. However, in the corner I found a series of panels with photographs of people sitting on chairs. Behind them, the scenery morphed from earthquake-damaged rooms to beaches, from parks and cemeteries to abandoned land choked with weeds and the rubble of broken buildings. I was intrigued.

On closer inspection, I discovered that the panels were part of a photojournalism exhibition by artist Guy Frederick. Frederick created the exhibition during his time as the Fellow of the NZ Mental Health Media Grant in 2011 and evocatively titled it, The Space Between Words.

As well as the People in Disasters Conference, The Space Between Words has been exhibited at the National Library of NZ in Wellington, in Auckland as part of the Festival of Photograph and in the Christchurch by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency (CERA). In August 2013, the project was the recipient of an Australasian Mental Health Services award for Mental Health Promotion. Today, the exhibition has also been made available in the CEISMIC archive.

Below each photograph in the exhibition is the transcript of an interview with the subject of the photograph. They speak of their experience of the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, the emotional challenges they faced in the aftermath, and their journey towards mental recovery. To the right of the transcript is a message about the location they chose for the photograph: why it is special to the participant and, more specifically, what it meant to them during their recovery. For many of the participants, the location in the photograph provided a sanctuary against the turmoil of post-quake Christchurch, a place of calm and tranquillity where they could reflect and recuperate. For others it stood for a life they had lost, a place they could come to remember better times.

This represents the central message Frederick was aiming for when he created the exhibition. “One of the primary goals of my project was to share positive mental health messages,” he said. “Post-traumatic stress is generally associated with a one off event, so as the aftershocks have continues, so too have the compounding nature of their impact on mental distress” (National Library, The Space Between Words Opens).  Frederick hopes that viewers of his exhibition will be encouraged to find their own space, away from the destruction of the earthquakes, so that they too can heal.

All images from 'The Space Between Words' Exhibition. Copyright Guy Frederick.