Written by | Exclu Reacts

Exclu reacts with guest creative Dan Leonard.


We recently stumbled onto a photographer who was appearing in our feeds and who instantly caught our eye with the narrative behind their work. Compelled to investigate further by our own Dan Sparkes, we discovered a movement with huge real world implications which is helping to connect people using the medium of Toy Photography. The movement in question  #WithToysInMind and is the result of work by Dan Leonard (@tinyepicphotos) based on his own experiences with mental health issues and below is his story and why he felt the time was right to use Toy Photography as his creative outlet.

The idea for the #WithToysInMind project came to me while I was having a particularly bad day. It’s not unusual for me to have a slight existential crisis occasionally and question whether I’m at all doing the right things in life. I had an urge to do something to channel my creativity, something that would take time, and that I could really put my heart and soul into. I spent a few minutes searching my brain for a solution. The idea to create a project that would openly discuss mental illness through toy photography very quickly began to form. This was something that immediately felt right, and instantly got me excited and out of my funk.


The subject of mental health is something that’s extremely important to me. I’ve suffered with both depression and anxiety since I was a teenager and it took me a long time to admit that I was ill, and even longer for me to seek help. Unlike other illnesses there are no visible symptoms and for long periods of time it wouldn’t affect me. But the more I pushed stuff down, the more it bubbled up when things got bad. And things eventually got much worse. At that point, I sought the help of an Emotional Therapist who let me unload 20 years of frustration and mismanaged emotions. Over time, they helped me understand and organise my feelings, and eventually I began to feel in control again. It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

It’s extremely important for me to have creative outlets to escape what are sometimes some fairly intense emotions. Toy photography is a relatively recent hobby of mine that was born out of my love of Lego, macro photography, and filmmaking. Soon after I started posting images online, I discovered that there was a huge community of like-minded toy photographers who were extremely welcoming and supportive of my work.


I felt this was a safe enough place to open myself up and discuss my experiences with mental illness through my work. I also wanted to open this project to the wider community and get them involved. Toy photography has provided a creative outlet for me and has positively impacted my wellbeing in so many ways – I was hoping that there would be at least a couple of other folks who felt the same way.


There are no rules for participation, but I wanted to avoid concentrating on images of destruction that are closely intertwined with the subject of mental illness, e.g., suicide, violence, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Instead, I felt this should be a communication of what it’s like to feel certain ways, and how to manage things like depression and anxiety.

After announcing the start of the project, posts using the #WithToysInMind tag started streaming in, as well as lots of feedback about how the project has encouraged people in different ways. It has been humbling and empowering to see the vastly different and personal depictions of mental health, illness, and personal triumphs.


The response has been incredible, and after the first month over 400 images have been created for project. Despite starting this hashtag, I know that its popularity has nothing to do with me. As a society, we have started talking about this subject, and as more of us have honest conversations with each other about how we struggle, the taboo fades further into the background. The posts you find in the #WithToysInMind feed show just how nuanced, and personal the subject is, and I hope that they can be one small part of a much wider conversation.


To find out how you can get involved with the #WithToysInMind project please see the FAQ in my Story Highlights. I’ll also be posting a collection of my favourite community images on Mondays to coincide with #MentalHealthMonday.

Be sure to check out the continuing effort to raise awareness of Mental Health issues and how toy photography and the surrounding community can help to alleviate those stress by following Dan on Instagram via @tinyepicphotos 

For more of the latest from across the toy community, stay tuned to Exclu.


Last modified: July 3, 2018

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