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OCD: Artistic Representation

An Exploration of what OCD is and how it has been portrayed through the arts.

What is OCD?

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a mental health condition which causes the individual to have obsessive thoughts that they can’t get out of their head and compulsive behaviours which they feel the need to do.

The thoughts, obsessions, are unwanted and unpleasant and cause the individual to feel ill at ease, anxious and unsettled. The thoughts will often be about something bad happening.

Compulsions are repeated behaviours that someone with OCD feels like they need to do to stop the obsessive thoughts. This could be something like checking all the doors are locked or turning a switch on and off several times.

There is often some confusion over what OCD is, with some people thinking it is just the need to have everything neat and tidy, and while that can be a form of OCD, it is a lot more serious than just liking things to be clean.

OCD can have severe impacts on someone’s life, causing them to have panic attacks and even meaning they can’t get on with their day because they can’t stop the obsessive thoughts.

How has OCD been portrayed in the arts?

Many artists have taken to representing OCD through their practice to raise awareness of it. Some draw from their own personal experiences of having OCD while others use the stories of others, such as their loved ones, as the inspiration behind their work.

The different representations of OCD are all unique and this is representative of the fact that nobody experiences OCD in the same way as somebody else, everyone’s experience of it is unique too.

Leonie Hampton

Leonie Hampton uses her photography practice to represent OCD through images. She draws from the experiences of her mother, who has to deal with contamination phobia and hoarding. As a way of dealing with this, the family came to the agreement that Hampton could document the process of them all coming together to go through all of the items hoarded by her mother.

The process began in 2007, and Hampton noted that while she wanted to invest in this project, it was a secondary motivation for her. Her main reason was to help her mother and to care for her and to support the family.

There is no chronologicity to the images, instead Hampton wanted to encapsulate the space and draw the viewer in to what it felt like. She was trying to

visually transcribe the emotional terrain

of the family’s experience. Hampton also learnt a lot about mental health and OCD through the project and she came out of the experience with a different mindset.

More on this project can be found here.

Jesse Lewis-Reece

Jesse Lewis-Reece uses film to portray what one form of OCD is like. The film, titled Eyelash’, looks at a man who suffers from OCD and features a lot of repetitive shots and cuts to try and represent what it is like in the mind of someone who has OCD.

The film also features a poem which tells the story of the main character and gives an insight into what goes through his mind. The poem is told through a voiceover which is timed with a lot of the shots and cuts to emphasise the repetition and create a window into the mind of the character.

Through the film we see some of the obsessions and compulsions faced by the main character, he repeatedly has to wash his hands, check the door is locked, turn the lights on and off, avoid cracks in the path. The overwhelming urge he feels to complete these actions is emphasised through the repetitive shots of them.

Eyelash can be found here.

My own work

I have also explored the topic of mental health through my practice, with one of my most recent projects focusing on OCD. My main inspiration came from the experiences of my dad, and how that has impacted my behaviours too. The main thing I find myself worrying over is ensuring that everything is switched off. Every day I routinely check that switches are off if they are not in use and I will do this several times a day.

I wanted to represent mine and my dad’s experiences artistically to try and help a wider audience understand what it is like to constantly feel the need to check and then check again.

To achieve this, I focused on the notion of repetition and tried to fit as much of it into my piece, titled ‘Dis-order’, as I could. I took repeated photographs, repeated the same images across the frame, used a repetitive grid format and included a repetition of words to form a border around the grid.

I hoped that this emphasised repetition would help convey to the audience that you can’t get the thoughts out of your mind, they just keep repeating themselves over and over.

More of my work can be found here.


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