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The White Shirt Project and Mental Illness

(L-R) Casimar Casey Valles, Eileen Cofield, and Simply Rob Vassilarakis found personal expressions came alive while modeling for Jose Ramon’s White Shirt Project (Jose Ramon Photography)

by Diego Barcacel and Gary Axelbank

May 29, 2018

 

While developing a portfolio of people he photographed in white shirts, Jose Ramon of Parkchester discovered a personal connection with his own battles with mental illness.  So he pursued the conceptual art project in hopes of bringing awareness to illnesses such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and depression.

Jasmin Van Wales, Founder of Jasmin Van Wales Productions (Jose Ramon Photography)

The White Shirt Project, created in October 2017, was recently showcased at the Mott Haven Bar & Grill and is comprised of a series of photographs of 40 models, each wearing only a white shirt and black pants against a dark background that Ramon believes reveals a vulnerable story of PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses.

The models include Richard Pryor Jr., Michael Brady, Executive Director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District, and founder of ‘La Reina Del Barrio Inc.’ and BronxNet personality Rhina Valentin.

Ramon, a one time Metropolitan College of New York student who is now in his 50s, has always had a passion for photography, but he didn’t pursue it until recently.

Jose Ramon poses with the camera he uses to take the photos for The White Shirt Project (photo by Gary Axelbank)

Disabled with PTSD and depression after a series of traumatic events that affected his mental state, he craved something that was simple, low impact, and because of his condition, kept him in his apartment.  Photography, he says, became his only form of communication.

“The idea for this project came from the simplicity of wearing a white shirt and the times that I’ve worn one and what it meant when I’ve worn one,” he said during a weekday interview in his darkened living room.  “Something about these shirts contain all that energy.”

After seeing photos taken of him at his mother’s funeral where both he and the deceased were wearing white, Ramon realized that he associated the color white with life and death.  So he put two and two together and the White Shirt Project was born.

Each photo session begins with a model choosing one of five white shirts that he makes available and he tries to make them comfortable enough to tap into their own psyches.

Connie Pacheco, founder of Recoveries R Us (Jose Ramon Photography)

After he photographed Connie Pacheco, the founder of Recoveries R Us, a recovery service for those afflicted with substance abuse,  he began to appreciate the validity of the project.

“She couldn’t believe it,” he said.  “She was taken aback by the image of herself and of the white shirt.  If this could have an impact on someone like that, it just rung a bell.”

“But I’m also healing myself in the process. I’m creating a safe space for them by sharing what happened to me, which then creates an opportunity for them to share if they choose to.”

Ramon hopes to take this from a local project to a national campaign. “We are not immobilized by this disease, we can do things that can impact the whole conversation of PTSD.”

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fundraiser to promote the White Shirt Project’s fight for mental health awareness will take place on Friday, June 1 at the Duplex Cabaret Theater. A gofundme pagehas also been created to help with the reception at the Mott Haven Bar & Grill.

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