Gavan Goulder used photography to combat his own mental health issues, Peter Dench finds out more about his inspiring story
Gavan Goulder is stood in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Photobookcafe in Shoreditch, London, pre-lockdown. He is a photographer with more than 30 years’ experience having shot on assignment for most major media titles across the globe including the Telegraph, Guardian and Observer. When he relocated to St Ives, Cornwall, Gavan founded the business, The Day That, photographing every sunrise (with a few exceptions) since June 2005 – the photographs provide a ‘perfect and personal gift’. Gavan has also delivered stand-up comedy to large crowds – some of the jokes were even funny. He is a photographer of travel, people and sunshine. He looks confident, a defiant Daniel Blake, a man who knows, a man who can wear a hat. I check the invite and press release. Gavan Goulder presents Black Dog: A Photographic Reaction to Depression.
Depression can creep up on you, or in Gavan’s case, explode into a feature-length episode of Casualty. In 2017, he suffered what he thought was a stroke. Several ambulances squealed to his home and hospital staff scrambled to diagnose him. They concluded Gavan had a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), or mini stroke, caused by a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain.
The impact was devastating, shocking his senses to the core – noise, crowds, walking and even standing still became a struggle, friends became daunting. It’s a time Gavan refers to as his ‘blue period’ and he retreated to the familiar comfort of his home. Crippled from taking pictures, he did the next best thing and looked at them. ‘I have a small but wonderful selection of photography books that I would slide out from the shelf and sit quietly looking at by photographers that inspired me to become a photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, Stuart Freedman, Magnum photographer Mark Power, others from the agency and the excellent My Fellow Americans by Jeff Jacobson. I was finding that looking at these books made me want to venture outside to take pictures. They helped me leave the house, even when my metaphorical sea was rough. It wasn’t easy but it gave me a focus and the idea for the Black Dog project was born.’
The plan for Black Dog (a term attributed to how Winston Churchill described his own depression), was to photograph during all 31 days of January, the month of winter blues. The death of his mother from alcoholism set him back, so it was on the 26 January 2019, that Gavan set out to confront his own dark canine. With Cornwall as a back drop, the book (100 copies were published after a successful crowdfunding campaign) takes us on a carefully sequenced journey. ‘The subjects may seem random but have been carefully thought through as having a mental health benefit. The events and people I have photographed are involved in activities that help keep body and mind active and involved,’ Gavan writes in his introduction to Black Dog.
Shot on a Fujifi lm X-T2 with 23mm f/1.4, 35mm f/2 and 56mm f/1.2 lenses, there are people exercising in the gym, dressed as soldiers ready to re-enact battle, camping in the wood, drinking in the bar, surfing, dancing and protesting. In one pairing, a bridge is photographed on a bright blue sky day and again 17 hours later on a grey sky day – a poignant reminder of how quickly things can change. There are lurching trees, desolate landscapes, a crashing wave and animal skulls.
Gavan’s Photobookcafe presentation is not a talk of vanity, he doesn’t hold back, it’s always honest, at times brutal. The crowd are attentive, some nod encouragingly, others knowingly. The overriding message is there is always a path out of the pain and photography can be a useful tool to help find it. By showing his own malfunction, others may benefi t from what he’s been through. More talks are planned.
This episode for Gavan has subsided and he’s ready to progress. ‘I’m now better and working on new projects. I’m looking to start a project about alcohol abuse next year, it’s just too close for me to start what I want to do. My idea will be quite difficult to do but I’m determined to try and find answers about what happened to my mum.’ As another sun rises over St Ives, I’m sure, in time, he will.
Gavan is a photographer who was inspired by his own mental health issues to create The Black Dog photography project as well as The Day That capturing sunrise each day from June 2005. Discover more at www.thedaythat.co.uk and gavgoulder.com