Photographer Charlie Clift on his Let's Talk campaign, coping with anxiety and addressing mental health

We've long admired the work of Charlie Clift, a London-based photographer who has dangled CEOs upside down, gone undercover with drug cops, set Michelin star chefs on fire and discussed peace with Nobel Prize winners – all in pursuit of a great photograph. His drive is to tell personal stories with a twist of the unexpected.

He works globally for a range of editorial and commercial clients including the BBC, BAFTA, The Sunday Times Magazine, Wired, the Premier League, Samsung, AXA, The British Council and many others.

To keep things fresh Charlie always has a personal project on the go. From a collective portrait of British emigrants to capturing the spirit of his neighbourhood, he experiments with different ways of creating images and telling stories. His latest is Let’s Talk, a campaign about mental health in collaboration with lettering artist Kate Forrester.

We chatted to Charlie about this, his career so far and what he's got in store next. (Make sure you scroll to the bottom to watch a video about the Let's Talk project, too!)

Tell us more about Let's Talk

Let’s Talk is a campaign that aims to spark millions of conversations about mental health. By literally drawing people’s most difficult thoughts on their faces and then photographing them we hope to inspire others to open up about their own mental health.

I’ve been collaborating with lettering artist Kate Forrester to make the images. First I interviewed each volunteer to find out how they would describe their mental health difficulties in their own words. Kate and I then picked out words and phrases from the interview which we felt best explained each person's experience. On the day of the photoshoot, Kate would spend a couple of hours hand-lettering those words onto the person’s face. Having literally put their toughest thoughts out in the open, I then photographed them whilst we had a chat about their life, their passions and their difficulties.

We are now displaying these images, two metres tall in a public outdoor exhibition – I hope it’s sparking loads of conversations about mental health. We’ve partnered with British Land to show the images in a five-week tour in London across three locations. It’s currently at Regent’s Place and will be moving to Broadgate for a week from 22 October. It will next head to Paddington Central on the 29 October for two weeks. We are also doing a series of talks with our charity partner Mental Health UK to inspire even more conversations.

Is it true that you've suffered yourself?

Yes, I suffered from depression at university, and it occasionally still haunts me now. I had to drop out of my studies because I just lost all motivation and drive. I ended up moving back in with my parents and taking a year off. They were amazing and really supportive. Thankfully, I could open up and talk to them – that really helped me a lot.

Photography was your saving grace, wasn't it?

Yes, it was in many ways. For about six months I just stayed inside and ignored the world. I was then given a camera by my parents. Photography got me out of the house and got me back talking to people. Then, when I returned to university to finish my studies, I dived heavily into the photography society. It helped me make friends and get back to my old sociable self. I really hope this project can be a way of using my photography now to help others.

When asking people to describe their experiences, what stood out? Were there any common themes?

Many of the people I interviewed for the project had had similar thoughts to me. It made me realise that my mental health difficulties weren’t abnormal, that actually those tough thoughts and difficult feelings are something that loads of people live with.

It was inspiring to see how much the people featured in the project have achieved despite their mental health difficulties. Because of this, I was determined to make sure the portraits captured their characters not just their problems, I wanted to show all sides of them.

What do you hope people will get out of this?

I hope people will feel more able to open up and talk about their mental health. I want to make people realise that it’s ok to not feel ok. Starting a conversation with someone is the first step to getting help. I really hope the photos can encourage that.

The world does seem to be a sombre place right now. Are you seeing an increase in depression and anxiety?

I think it’s becoming harder to create meaningful relationships when most of our work and a large part of our social life happens over email and in text rather than in face to face interactions. With the rise of social media, it can often feel like everyone else has a better life than you, but that’s only their curated feed, and we don’t see any of the bad bits.

However, I also feel that because we are breaking down the stigma around mental health, people feel more able to talk about their difficulties – finally, people are coming forward and saying they are having problems who wouldn’t have been doing so five or 10 years ago. We are all more willing to talk about mental health now and I hope the Let’s Talk project reinforces that.

Anxiety is certainly a theme that keeps popping up at Creative Boom – it's the thing people most ask for advice on. Do you have any tips to help those suffering from it?

I often get anxious myself, I find a few things in particular really help me. Firstly, exercise. I am so much more relaxed, happy and focused when I do regular exercise, and I heard the same thing from many of the people I spoke to for this project. Get out and move, it really helps you feel better.

Secondly, about two to three years ago I started doing short meditation sessions, just 10 minutes is all it takes. I use an app called Headspace and I’ve found that really helps guide me through the process. I do it most days and it makes me more relaxed and able to tackle tasks with a much clearer head.

Finally, talking to others about my problems. I still hold things in and then I am amazed at how much better I feel when I finally do talk to someone. So, speak up people!

Is there anything that bugs you about the creative industries – what would you like to see change?

You can very easily get lonely as a photographer or freelance creative nowadays. Almost everything is digital now, so we spend more and more time in front of our computers and less time meeting with others.

I get my commissions through email, my briefs through email and I deliver my work through email. So I try and make sure I book in meetings to get to know the people I’m working with face-to-face. Building up personal relationships is so important for me, and I find there’s no better way to do that than a chat over a coffee.

I also really enjoy industry events as it is nice to be able to meet other photographers and creatives and hear what they’ve been working on. I’d like to see more meetups and more ways of getting creative people together, I find them really inspiring.

Moving on, what has made you smile lately?

The autumn colours have been awesome recently. I try and get out on my bike to take in the countryside around London as often as I can. Not only does it make me happy to move, but there’s nothing quite like the many shades of an autumn wood whipping past you to bring a smile to your face.

Is there anything else you're currently working on that we should know about?

Well, I’ve just finished two big projects and they are both currently exhibiting, so I’m pretty busy with those at the moment. We are giving talks and discussions as part of the Let’s Talk touring exhibition, one at Broadgate today – on 25 October – and another at Paddington Central shortly after.

Plus my Portrait of Brixton exhibition is also still on show at Pop Brixton until the end of the month.

After that, I think I’m going to take some time to ponder my next project. I like to reassess my work every year or so. I feel it’s important to make sure I am still doing work that I love and creating things that matter to me. I’m looking forward to taking the time to do this again soon. I’ve got lots of ideas bubbling around in my head, but I’ve got to make sure I’m concentrating on the right thing before diving into my next personal project.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

Be persistent. Don’t ever stop trying. If you keep creating work that you’re passionate about and keep knocking on people’s doors things will happen. I spent about a year trying to find a project partner to fund the outdoor exhibition of Let’s Talk and then about a month before I had planned to open the exhibition British Land came forward. It was really last minute and I had just about given up, but thankfully I persisted and it paid off. I could tell you so many stories like this from my career. So keep persisting and you will get there.

To go and see Charlie Clift's Let's Talk project, you can see it on display from now until 20 October at Regent's Place on Euston Road, London. From 22 October, it'll be at Finsbury Avenue Square, Broadgate, London. Then, from 29 October until 10 November, it'll be at Paddington Central, Sheldon Square, London.

Let's Talk will then appear at the Exposure Gallery in Fitzrovia, an exhibition curated by The Photography Movement from 29 November until 13 December. Discover more at letstalkcampaign.com or follow Charlie on Instagram at @charlieclift.