I want to tell you about a new book by the Exclu Collective: With Toys in Mind Anthology. This is a collaboration between Jack Sturman, the founder of the Exclu Collective, and Dan Leonard who created the hashtag #withtoysinmind.

The book has been created to raise awareness around mental health issues by sharing the stories of 10 toy photographers. Each of the contributors shares how they use toys and photography to cope with mental illness and the pressures of the world.

Mental health and toy photography

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that mental illness can afflict anyone, anywhere. Suicide rates are on the rise across the world. Life is a constant struggle, and for a long time, talking about that struggle has been discouraged.

Luckily, more people are talking about these struggles or how mental illness affects them, and this is a good thing. In my own circle of toy photography friends, I’m keenly aware that mental health issues affect many of them. I often see toy photography used to manage stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and many other mental health issues.

This is why I’ve supported Dan and his #withtoysinmind hashtag from the very beginning. As soon as I saw the hashtag on Instagram I knew this was a conversation that needed to happen. I believe this simple hashtag has helped to create a safe space to share these stories. And by doing so, it allows us to gain understanding and empathy.

The artists

When Dan reached out several months back and asked me to be a part of this special edition of the Exclu Collective book series, I jumped at the chance. Supporting my friends is what I do.

You’re probably asking yourself, why is Shelly in this book? She’s not affected by any type of mental illness. And you’re right to be asking this question. I asked myself the same question. Whatever the answer, I’m proud to be in this book surrounded by 10 amazing photographers, each one courageously sharing their own battles with depression, stress, self-image, anxiety or crippling self-doubt. I’m in awe of their bravery and I’m humbled to be included in this collection of stories and images.

Each artist was handpicked by Dan because of past stories they’ve shared through the #WTIM hashtag. They each represent a mental health issue Dan wants to highlight in this very special edition of Exclu Collective’s printed series.

Besides showcasing their beautiful imagery, each artist has contributed a brief essay on a topic that touches them specifically. The accompanying photos illustrate how we often use toys and toy photography as a coping mechanism. I’m grateful that these amazing photographers feel comfortable enough in this community that they’re willing to share their stories. What a gift!

Sharing our stories

It’s so easy to point to mental health issues like anxiety and stress, and simply condemn them as first-world problems. While they may not seem as important as poverty, famine, global climate change or any of the other problems screaming at us from the newspaper headlines, they certainly strike closer to home. No matter how you feel about this topic, we need to create safe spaces to talk about it.

Why? Because suicide is on the rise. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and many more attempt suicide. In the United States, twice as many people die by suicide than homicide. In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 45. Now stop, just for a moment, and think about those statistics. This is crazy!

I realize that this issue of the Exclu Collective: With Toys in Mind won’t solve the current mental health crisis, but it gives me hope. And right now we live in a world that seems short on hope. By creating this book and sharing our stories, we artists can shine a light on positive mental health and help to create a positive path forward.

How you can help

You can help to spread this message of positivity by pre-ordering the book. Once you receive the book, you will be able to take a deep dive into the stories shared by these diverse artists, including our fearless leader Dan Leonard. Like all great photo books, it’s also a visual treat. The talented Jack Sturman, Creative Director of Exclu Collective, has designed this beautiful book to showcase the amazing work of these artists. All the profits from sale of this book will go to support the work of Samaritans. They are the ones on the front lines offering hope to anyone who has reached a crisis point. We need more people like them!

You only have until August 31st to order your copy!! What are your waiting for?


Thank you Dan Leonard for all the work you’ve done to bring all aspects of mental health out from the shadows. I also want to thank Jack Sturman for giving this valuable project a larger platform. You’re both awesome!

Hopefully, by having more discussion like this, by sharing our personal stories, we can remove the stigma from mental health. And please show a little compassion towards your fellow toy photographers. Because that photographer you admire so much, might be using toy photography to fight their own demons.

~ Shelly