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United by art – and brain injury



In a studio in East London, a studio full of artists get to work, with one small difference – they all survived a traumatic brain injury. Photographer Leon Foggitt tells NR Times about his experience capturing the artists.

More than four years ago, photographer Leon Foggitt spotted an article about a collective of artists who’d survived a brain injury, and there was a charity where they could learn to be artists. He was intrigued.

He got in touch with Submit to Love studios, a programme at brain injury charity Headway East London and they invited him in to visit.

The programme supports artists to develop their skills and build a portfolio of work.

Foggitt didn’t have any experience of brain injury, but he was into BMX, so he was vaguely aware of the prevalence of brain injuries in the sport.

“From that point, it was a learning experience,” he says. “A lot of these things, you get into without knowing too much about it first.”

Terry Bruce

Foggitt is a portrait photographer, and he’s especially interested in groups of people who are a bit different to those we’d normally come into contact with.

On his first visit, he got on well with the people there and the staff. He knew straight away he wanted to take some portraits of the people he’d met.

“The studios struck me as a positive place – it had a good atmosphere about it.”

He set up a little photo studio within their studio, and staff explained to the group what Foggitt was doing, and asked if anyone wanted to take part.

“Anyone who was interested came in front of the camera, I spoke to them, direct them a bit, explain what I need and took their picture – the same process I normally use with portraits,” he says.

Foggitt always finds that some people are more comfortable in front of the camera than others.

“Some people find it easy, for others, it’s a big thing.”Foggitt went through his photos to select the ones he wanted to use.

“With portraiture, you go through all the pictures trying to find a moment that feels quieter, where there’s something going on there,” he says.

“Essentially, I look for a picture where it doesn’t necessarily look like they’re posing for the camera, it’s a moment where they let their guard down, or they’ve opened up a bit – it gives the picture something about it.”

The studio asked Foggitt to come back, and commissioned him to do some more portraits, with the aim of them going in an exhibition at the Autograph gallery in London.

He photographed everyone in front of a blank background, so it would draw more attention to the subject.

“They liked the portraits I did last time. They’re going to have an exhibition and they thought it would help to add faces to give context to their work,” Foggitt says.

Foggitt enjoyed going back to the studio – he could see how going to the studio was a big, positive part of people’s lives.

Chris Miller

And he took a lot away from the experience.“It makes you aware,” he says.

“Having a brain injury can affect you in so many ways. I learnt that it’s so complicated, and depending on which part of the brain gets injured depends on how it affects you.”

Foggitt says the experience made him aware of how complicated brain injuries can be. He met some people who, he says, if he didn’t know had a brain injury, he wouldn’t have guessed they did.

“I was chatting to some of the staff about this and they said that you might not know from talking to someone that they had a brain injury, but then that person might not be able to find their way home afterwards.”

While he didn’t get to know the people in the studio really well, he did get to spend some time with them.

He says it was ‘eye-opening’ to see people dealing with their injuries.

“The majority of people I talked to in the studio were really positive, they’d come to understand whatever had happened to them as a positive thing because it changed their life in ways that they think needed to happen,” he says.

“As times, it was humbling, because I was talking to people who’d been through a huge trauma in life that had completely changed them, and they’d got to a point where they’d accepted it.”

He says his subjects all had a good sense of humour and were very open to what Foggitt was doing; which was important, because the most important thing for Foggitt, in order to do a good job, was building a connection with everyone in the studio.

“It’s really important to have a connection with people and a level of trust. Every photographer is different, and some don’t want to make a connection with people – but I need to have a certain level of connection and trust, and empathy.“

Tirzar Mileham

“When I’m looking through my pictures, there’s an intimacy to it, people put themselves in a vulnerable place – I like the pictures where you can see a shared humanity, where there’s a bit of them that you recognise in yourself.”

Foggitt says he found a middle ground, where he didn’t know his subjects really well, but they weren’t total strangers, either.

“Sometimes, that connection can be fleeting. Some photographers want to live with people, spend time with them and really get to know them.

“I’m not like that. I like to go somewhere and then leave it. During that time of being there, you can have that connection.”