Everybody hurts, as the song goes, and sometimes we notice the hurt, sometimes we do not and carry on with our lives, other times we cannot get around it and need to take action in order to heal.
I know photography has played a role for me in terms of coping strategies and making positive progress in my mental health and the pain I have felt at different times.
It has made me recognise how influential photography can be and how it can help us. Taking and looking at photographs is part of our lives and the closeness to our experiences means it holds emotion, whether that be troubling, joyful or as life tends to be bittersweet.
Perhaps this is actually where photography gains its power in helping us deal with painful times when we are feeling overwhelmed or suffering from depression.
I am looking at this in a two-fold way, one where we think of the natural involvement of photography as a healthy attribute in our lives, helping us share with loved ones, document milestones and retain a keepsake from special moments. On the other hand, is a more conscious and proactive approach; one where actively engaging in photography is a route to lifting mood and building more positive thought processes and behaviours.
Getting into a Flow
There’s one key tenet of art therapy in regards to mental health which seems so simple but so crucial to me, and that is that getting into the flow with something, being consumed and immersed, to enable your brain to settle into that task entirely. Photography can do this. The way everyone goes about taking a photo is different, led by your own interests and style. For me and for many people, it is about looking. I do this on the street. I’m captivated by people; watching them as they go about their daily business, getting on with their lives, and this means I really have to tune in my observational senses. I love getting lost in the moving crowd or hurrying to catch up with someone who catches my attention. This is the immersion in life and in photography, which can take me away from otherwise all-consuming thoughts.
Focusing on a Task
Having a task to start, achieve, complete – what an affirmative situation to be in! Often when we are down we have problems with motivation, at once missing the feeling of purposefulness but also being limited by waning energy and confidence levels. Within photography, you can move through the tasks second by second. Making progress by pressing a button, improving the composition the very next second and this can be extended as you establish your practice more. Think of the framing, the lighting, the exposure, the focus, step by step you move through the responsibility of making the image. Then you look after the image in the selection, editing and post-production stages, making the process as expandable as suits your capacity.
The wonderful point about photography is how expansive it is as a discipline. You can get started straight away but you can also build your skills over a lifetime. The variety of processes, subject matters and techniques, from camera-less photography to mobile phone imagery, is diverse so there is something for everyone, and always something new to try. Within each, there is a progress tracker to accumulate skills over time
If you want it, or possibly more to the point, need it, photography can be about interaction. For me this is an important element, even though I am in some ways very introverted, I find photography is a good way to set up and enjoy interactions. This could be with people I have never met before and with my closed family. Their curiosity about my work, my approaches to them to ask for a photo, me sharing my experiences by pining a photo to a friend or choosing a new series to exhibit or talk about online; it all blends into the habit of taking photos.
The great thing is that photography is generative. You are at once capturing the world and contributing to it. It has been a major joy to have a conversation starter from a photo I have taken which can take me out of the rigmarole of the "How are you?" question. "I've had a lot on my mind but it's been great getting out with my camera, check out what I photographed today." I could never separate the photographer from the photograph but within photography there is a chance to focus on something other than yourself and your health, which can sometimes be a lifeline when your world seems to be closing in around you.
The joy of interactions does not just happen in person. I have been inspired and motivated by the interactions I have had online, through comments exchanged with individuals on social media to the fantastic feeling when a website I enjoy takes the time to feature a project I have worked hard to create as BROAD.community and Seen Magazine have done recently with my Illusion series.
Although photography is fundamentally looking outwards, it involves reflection, even if that is just a healthy criticality about each image, improving technique and seeing progress. It is much more than that, however, and can tell us about ourselves. Looking back over a day’s photos, I often think, how perfectly that colour palette matches my mood, how poignant that scene is to my own scenario. It is affirmative to see your own situation reflected in the world and constructive to have a totem as a focus for working through your thoughts on a subject, feeling or experience. This is ultimately a way to reflect and learn about yourself.
I was so moved by looking at the work of Tara Wray. Her book Too Tired For Sunshine originally published by Yoffy Press, is sold out now but you can see information and images for it on Wray’s website. There is so much emotion and, thankfully, humour in this work, and the idea of ‘leaning into the sadness’ is definitely striking off the bittersweet living of life that I feel too. There’s a great interview about the book here on the NPR website and The Huffington Post also covered the launch. Wray, along with other collaborators, have created an amazing non-profit project in connection with the original photo book which is called the Too Tired Project. It offers a ‘place for collective expression’ and in doing so a supportive platform for those struggling with depression. You can also follow them on Instagram where they post their open calls.
Independent and Together
I’ve been talking here about independent photography practice and experiences but there are also many aspects of photography, which are worked into art therapy treatments and participatory workshops with therapists. I’ve spoken a bit more about this in another post on how photography is used within the wider art therapy field (All You Need To Know About Photography) and I find the work going on to be fascinating.
Looking at the initial pioneering implementation of modern art therapy, for example, Adrian Hill establishing art practice within the convalescence of tuberculosis patients in the 1940s, he, a veteran himself, quickly honed in on the efficacy of opening up this technique to other war-weary patients. The contemporary terms were not used in the interwar and post WW2 period but we know now that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression are common within those who have served in conflict zones.
I love the title of Hill’s seminal book Art Versus Illness, I imagine that today a more tentative title would be used but the assertiveness of this and the idea that we can use art, photography included, as a tool or protection against poor mental health is inspiring.
I’ll close on a photo of one of Hill’s paintings made while serving as a war artist, with damaged trees in a hazy landscape, the statuesque natural forms seemingly taking on the angst of the situation.
I recognised a strong visual and emotional link to Tara Wray’s image of trees within the video of Too Tired For Sunshine above and it made me think back to seeing the depth of feeling represented and being able to reflect on that to find a resolution.