Edmonton photographer captures portraits of fellow mental-illness survivors

Blake Loates is hoping her work can shed some light on the face of mental illness.

'It was an overwhelming response. Overwhelming in a good way'

Photographer Blake Loates has captured a new collection of portraits featuring Edmontonians whose lives have been touched by suicide. (Emilie Iggiotti)

Blake Loates is hoping her work can shed some light on the face of mental illness.

The Edmonton photographer captured a series of portraits for a Suicide Prevention week campaign by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Loates was commissioned by the agency last August for 20 portraits of Edmontonians whose lives had been touched by suicide.

She put out a call on social media and ended up with more than 120 volunteers.

"It was an overwhelming response," Loates said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

 "Overwhelming in a good way."

I didn't have the heart in me to turn anyone away.- Blake Loates

Instead of turning people away, Loates decided to photograph each and every person who messaged her.

"Over 100 people messaged me and often told very personal stories of their own experiences with suicide or a loved one's," Loates said.

"I didn't have the heart in me to turn anyone away."

'This is so important to me'

Loates scheduled sessions in more than 40 locations across the city and asked volunteers to show up en masse. Without the benefit of a vehicle or a dedicated portrait studio, Loates managed to finish the collection.

In four days, 120 people were photographed in various settings.

"I don't drive so I ran a little portrait studio out of my bicycle," Loates said. "I just biked all over Edmonton and just photographed people from my bike."  People's willingness to share their stories was overwhelming, Loates said. Their stories of perseverance were an inspiration. 

"At one of the locations, the aviation museum, about 15 to 20 people showed up, and when I got there, I thought it was because the museum was closed," Loates recalled.

"I thought people were just waiting to get inside the museum but they were all there to see me and I started to cry. I was just sobbing. 'I can't believe you're all here to see me. This is so important to me.' "

Loates created a video of her own, featuring all of the portraits.

Many of the remaining images are now getting a second life.

The City of Edmonton approached Loates recently to ask if they could use some of the images for  the Edmonton Suicide Prevention Plan.

Loates was thrilled with the offer.

"I was excited — so, so excited," she said. "This is the kind of the change I wanted to make in the world when I decided to do advocacy."

I never felt it was something I should be ashamed of.- Blake Loates

Loates herself has struggled with mental illness for more than 20 years. She lives with bipolar disorder, and almost died from a suicide attempt in 2017.

She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 14.

As a child, her mother told her to keep her diagnosis a secret. Loates rejected that advice.

"My mom said to me that I should never tell anybody and I didn't understand that because ... I never felt it was something I should be ashamed of."

After working as a psychiatric nurse for many years, Loates began using her photography as a way to advocate for mental health.

In 2016, she completed her first portrait collection featuring people in Edmonton who battled mental illness. Titled "We all believe in you" the collection was displayed at the Art Gallery of Alberta in May of that year to open mental health awareness week.

Speaking openly about her struggles — and sharing her experience with fellow survivors — has helped her feel less isolated.

She hopes her photography will be a similar salve for those are struggling.

"My future wasn't looking very bright as a teen. I needed more hope than that," Loates said.

"That's why I started speaking out, so I didn't feel alone in my struggle and other people wouldn't feel alone in their struggle."