If I knew then…
…What I know now.
For years, I’ve been deeply pondering the state of mental health, particularly within the LGBT community. One undeniable truth binds every member of this community together—the arduous journey of overcoming internal struggles. These battles originate from a unique form of emotional isolation that, depending on one’s circumstances, can persist for decades. While all LGBT individuals face these internal struggles, it is the manner in which they confront and surmount the accompanying obstacles that truly shapes their identity. For us, there exists a distinct division between the past and the present. Once we take the courageous step of coming out, there is no turning back to the life we once knew. We can only forge ahead, often at the cost of our jobs, our families, or even our lives.
As a gay man, I find it incredibly challenging to envision a life devoid of those internal struggles. I often find myself asking: What would it be like to conform entirely to society’s expectations, unaware of any different reality? How would it feel to wholeheartedly devote oneself to a career or pursue passions without this constant undercurrent? Can you imagine navigating each day, meticulously avoiding certain topics that might expose our vulnerability? To not have to repeatedly come out to new acquaintances? To cautiously choose who we open up to, fearing the potential consequences? Personally, I consider myself fortunate in many respects. However, as my social circle expanded in my adult years, I discovered that countless others were not as fortunate. As I listened to their stories over time, I couldn’t help but wonder how their lives might have been different had they possessed a genuine support network. Furthermore, I pondered the advice they would give themselves if they were granted the opportunity.
As an artist, I am acutely aware of the profound impact art can have in instigating social change. I firmly believe that no artist should ever feel powerless in the face of adversity. This conviction inspired me to explore the internal struggles people endure, struggles that often lead to depression and thoughts of suicide, and where support is desperately needed. There are individuals who lack a solid support network, feeling utterly isolated and unable to relate to anyone. This realization prompted a crucial question: If someone sought my help, what advice could I offer? Would my guidance prove relevant to their situation? What wisdom could I genuinely impart to anyone other than myself? And then it struck me—the only person for whom my advice is unequivocally applicable is me. Yet, perhaps, someone could still find solace in those words.
Each portrait in this project is accompanied by a handwritten letter addressed to the subject’s younger self—their past life, so to speak—where they openly and honestly confront themselves by providing the advice they so desperately need. Through this project, the audience is presented with a rare opportunity to delve into the internal dialogue and establish a profound, intimate, and emotional connection with the subjects.
(See featured image)
This endeavor serves as a therapeutic experience for the subjects themselves while simultaneously acting as a support network for those who may find themselves without one. Moreover, I have always been fascinated by the power of visual pairings. Thus, the idea of combining a portrait with a handwritten letter to one’s younger self emerged, amplifying the impact of each element. Witnessing the interplay between the letter and the portrait allows one to truly experience the internal dialogue, while the subject’s unique personality shines through in their heartfelt words.
This work is about:
The survival skills LGBT people learn, often without the help of others, shape our adult identities.
Providing the much-needed advice that was missing during our moments of profound loneliness.
Self-compassion and self-acceptance
Fulfilling the yearning for parental support that some of us deeply craved.
Embracing us with a comforting hug during the times we contemplated taking a leap into the abyss.
Uttering the words we all longed to hear: “Everything will be alright.”
Serving as a reminder that you are not alone in your struggles.
Offering insights and knowledge that could have eased the hardships of an already challenging life.
Healing and closure.
All images and text © Ryan Bakerink
By Ryan Bakerink
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