Hannah Laycock was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in 2013. As a photographer, Laycock has started to explore what it means to live with a degenerative disease through her art. Her photo series, Awakenings, explores her journey through diagnosis to find a new normal in a changing body. contemplative and sensuous work on MS contributes to contemporary photography, and to wider illness narratives. She’s exhibited worldwide, and her latest photo series, The Vessel, was recently commissioned by Fòcas Scotland.
Contemplative and sensuous, Hannah’s work not only is making an impact in the world of contemporary photography, but in the wider narratives of illness and what it means to be normal. She’s exhibited worldwide, and her latest photo series, The Vessel, was recently commissioned by Fòcas Scotland. Folks sent Amy Mackelden, a writer living with the same condition, to talk with Hannah about how her diagnosis has changed her, how she incorporates the condition into her art, and what she hopes to accomplish next.
When were you diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, and how did it change you?
I was officially diagnosed with MS in July 2013. I’d recently started to play squash again, which I hadn’t since I was about 16 years old. After the first session, I noticed a pain underneath my right shoulder blade, which progressed into numbness across my chest and down my right side. It was something I had never experienced before.
My doctor did some preliminary blood tests, but couldn’t find anything. I discussed my family medical history, my main concern being that my dad has Motor Neurone Disease (ALS). I was referred to neurology to have an MRI scan.
I wasn’t expecting the news—that I had multiple sclerosis. Because my symptoms had faded and it was my “first” attack, they couldn’t quite make the diagnosis official until I had another relapse. In July 2013, the news was confirmed and I was then offered drug treatments. The whole experience felt like a dream; as if I was in someone else’s body.
Nervous System by Hannah Laycock.
I wasn’t expecting the news—that I had multiple sclerosis.
What was your career like before you were diagnosed?
After creating a project about my dad’s Motor Neurone Disease for my final year project at Brighton University, I felt creatively and emotionally jaded. Most of my energy went into my day job working as a Studio Manager and Production Assistant for a fast-paced creative digital agency. Although I enjoyed where I worked, it was stressful.
Why did you decide to start using your body in your photographs?
The fact that I use my own body in a lot of my work, almost like a performance piece, I don’t recall it being a conscious decision. It was more of an intuitive process. I was organically drawn to use this method as a way of translating how I felt, and still feel, living with a chronic condition.
It felt like a natural thing to do, being that I work with the experience of MS and how this affects my feelings and emotions. I feel at ease translating that through the use of my body. MS symptoms make me acutely aware of my body and what it feels, or in some cases, what I no longer feel.
It also gives me a sense of liberation, being playful with my body. Instead of MS choreographing what my body does, I work with it, rather than going against it and letting it consume me. In this way, the work makes me feel free and unrestrained.
Instead of MS choreographing what my body does, I work with it, rather than going against it and letting it consume me.
How do you come up with your ideas?
Ideas come from various sources, such as a passage from a book I’ve read, poetry, or the work of other artists. Ideas can come from something that appears quite mundane or simple. When I’m not trying to think up an idea, that can be when it strikes.
Brainfog by Hannah Laycock.
Your photos are often raw, exposed, and extremely intimate. Are you ever nervous about this approach?
I think with anything, it’s always healthy to feel some nerves. However, when executing raw and intimate subject matter, you need to have a healthy balance of assertion with exposing yourself in conjunction with those nerves. After all, if you are going to expose yourself, then you need to be sure of what and how you feel and why you are doing it. Otherwise, the work can come across as insincere and, perhaps, a little naive.
People do find some of the imagery quite intense, but I don’t see that as a negative. To me it means the work is translating what I had intended; it lays bare the reality of emotions people can experience with MS.
What does your MS medication mean to you? How does it affect you?
I was very much against medication for the first two and a half years after my diagnosis. I’ve never really been someone that felt the need to rely on medication.
If you are going to expose yourself, then you need to be sure of what and how you feel and why you are doing it. Otherwise, the work can come across as insincere
Prior to MS, I had been a healthy young woman from healthy stock. But before commencing treatment, I had experienced some pretty major changes in my life, such as relocating back to Scotland after living in Brighton and London (in the south of England) for 10 years. My body took the brunt of all the changes. My health deteriorated and I relapsed pretty badly. I lost the hearing in my left ear; my balance was way off. I had vertigo and had to use a walking stick and stop driving. I was majorly fatigued and felt like I was sinking fast into ill health. It was at that point that I decided medication was the only way forward to help me climb out of what felt like a bottomless pit of decent.
Two and half years later, I’m still on the same medication. An IV infusion every four weeks, which means I have to go to hospital each month. But since then, I’ve been relapse free. I still deal with daily MS symptoms, but they have become my “norm” and I am able to manage most of them. Others, I’ve had to have medical procedures to get a handle on.
In the grand scheme of things, I now live well. I have a sense of being back in control of my life. The only part I feel conflicted with is the fact that I have to go to hospital each month to have my dose of medication. This makes me feel a little locked in at times, and not as free as I would like, to just spontaneously disappear on a trip somewhere.
Forced to Gasp by Hannah Laycock.
Do you work in any other mediums aside from photography?
Not to the same extent as photography. Sometimes I dabble with a bit of drawing. I have also taken up embroidery for the first time this year. The plan is to incorporate that into new work that looks at the fragility of the human body from the perspective of disease. It will be quite a lengthy process; an installation piece working with textures and color. Color tends to play a big part in my work and is how I communicate what I’m experiencing.
What do you hope viewers take away from your photographs?
Curiosity to find out more about MS and other chronic conditions. A sense of confidence and empowerment within their own lives. To help others through times of adversity.
My next project, The Vessel, is about the experiences of relationships and intimacy through the lens of disease and diagnosis. I was once a person of a loved one diagnosed (when my dad found out he had Motor Neurone Disease), and then I became a person diagnosed myself (MS).
Don’t wait until you’re diagnosed with a serious illness to make you really appreciate all the things in life that bring you joy.
If you could let the world know just one thing about life with MS, what would it be?
We don’t get many chances in life, if at all. Don’t wait until you’re diagnosed with a serious illness to make you really appreciate all the things in life that bring you joy. Pay attention to the little things. Start appreciating everything now.
Hannah was interviewed by Amy Mackelden, who also has relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. Amy is the weekend editor at Harper’s BAZAAR, and is developing a project about chronic illness called MS Is My Boyfriend.