I’m going to take a break from the travel writing this week to add my voice to the growing discussion in photography centering around depression and suicide.

The recent suicides of famous people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have gotten people talking.

Influential photography podcasters like Valerie Jardin of Hit the Streets and Frederick Van Johnson from TWIP have devoted shows to talking about photography and depression. On the TWIP episode, Sharky James of the PetaPixel Photography Podcast was almost painfully open about his family’s struggles with depression and suicide. Click the links above to go directly to these episodes.

Those of us who have firsthand experiences with anxiety and depression should lead the way in talking about our experiences and the way photography – or any of the arts – have helped us cope. There is so much silence and shame surrounding mental health issues that many people commit suicide without seeking help.

Not to be too dramatic about it, this post is about how photography saved my life.

Photo Empty Chairs

An early photo in my 365 Project. I was walking in a local neighborhood and photographed these empty deck chairs by a small private lake. The scene seems calm and serene, but maybe a bit empty.

Background

I’ve just celebrated my 3rd photography birthday. Yes, I have an actual photography birthday – July 1, 2015.

It’s not that I didn’t take photos with my point-and-shoot camera before this when I traveled, but photography really only documented my experiences, it was not an art form of it’s own.

At this time, my job was a source of extreme stress and negativity and had started triggering depressive episodes on a more frequent basis than usual. My colleagues and supervisors seemed apathetic to my situation and there were days that I felt they were actively pushing me towards the edge of the cliff.

Suicide seemed a very real option.

When I’ve gone to therapy, I fill out various forms and one of the questions is how often I’ve contemplated suicide over the last week. There were many weeks that I’d answer “every day.”

My husband was very supportive, but there’s only so much another person can do when you’re in a very dark hole. My cats also help by showing unconditional love.

Photo Gidget

Portrait of our cat Gidget. I can thank photography for him as well. I found him, in very poor health, while out taking photographs on a fall day. He’s now grown and healthy.

Most people who encounter me probably don’t see the depression – in fact there are plenty of times in my life that I’m fine. Even when I’m going through an episode, those around me may not notice. I’m either absent from social events and simply say that I’m feeling “under the weather” – my code for depression.

I’ve been dealing with this for almost my entire life so I have a pretty good game face. I’m also an introvert in an extrovert’s job so I’ve gotten pretty good at switching on the act.

You won’t always know when those around you are depressed and suicidal. Even when depression is noticed, we may feel that it isn’t our place to say anything to the depressed person. It’s a pretty intimate thing to approach someone who’s depressed and ask how they are — and then push the issue when the person says they are “fine.” It really isn’t our problem and someone else is probably helping anyway.

Photo Frosty Leaves

Frosty Leaves taken in fall of 2015. Exploring partial black and white to reflect the wintery mood.

Photography Therapy

I’ve struggled with depression for my entire adult life so I have some pretty well developed coping strategies – but I really needed another during this difficult time. I felt myself moving dangerously close to the edge of the cliff and the cliff was crumbling.

A friend was doing a 365 Project (one photo a day for a year) and I thought I’d give it a try at least for the summer. I started my 365 Project on July 1, 2015 – with a horrible photo, which I won’t show here, but we all have to start somewhere! In hindsight, this was a critical decision.

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A recent study out of Lancaster University found that taking and posting a daily photo improves wellbeing. As you will read, I should have been a participant in this study!

Over the next 18 months or so, I took a photo every day (Total: 709) and Wits End Photography was born. I’ve written a little about this on my About page on my website.

Photo Rainy Day

Created for a photo challenge – Far Away – I took this self portrait on a bleak day in the Fall of 2015.

There were many days that making one photo was the only reason I had to get out of bed. The journey each day to find a photo to make – to find one thing beautiful I could share with the world – was therapeutic.

In depression, I see and remember every negative thing in my life. Negativity breeds negativity. I simply can’t remember the positive, happy times. I know I’ve been happy, I just can’t remember when. I know I will again be happy, but I really don’t believe it.

Forcing myself to find something beautiful and positive each day helped break that cycle and reminded me that there were beautiful things in the world – something I desperately needed reminding of!

Photo One Leaf

I often take walks around various neighborhoods in the morning, over lunch, or after work. I explore my local area looking for something beautiful. This solitary red leaf against cold metal caught my eye. I took this photo before I even knew about the rule of thirds.

I started to figure out my point-and-shoot camera and with that came a renewed interest in learning something new. I started researching how to take better photos and listening to photography podcasts. Curiosity and a desire-to-learn broke me out of old habits and started getting me thinking forward rather than dwelling on my current or past problems.

Initially, I wasn’t keen on sharing my photos with anyone, but I was posting to a 365 Project website and the free version of the site requires sharing. In hindsight, this was a good thing.

I began to get a few followers and started following others doing the 365 Project. There were others doing what I was doing! – an important reminder that I wasn’t alone. Over the next few months I would also discovered the Flickr community and a local photography club. I began developing both virtual and actual relationships with other hobbyist photographers.

Photo Rebecca

One of my first ever portraits taken as part of a photography class at a local studio.

A positive comment or two about one of my photos was like water in a desert. A big “thank you” to those who followed me and commented on my photos, especially early in my project. You didn’t know my situation, but there were days that one positive comment was my lifeline. It was the only positive thing to happen to me all day.

Comment freely and often on other’s photos – share the love around – you’ll probably make someone’s day and maybe even be helping them more than you can know.

I also grabbed onto the idea that if I could share a photo that positively affected someone else’s life – even for a few seconds while they looked at the photo – I was doing something important, making someone else’s life just a little bit better. This was an important idea for someone struggling to find a safe place in the world.

Photo Locked

I didn’t always have to leave the house to find a photo. Looking in my basement, I found an old lock and key and some textured wood. The comments I received from those following me on the 365 website helped keep me going.

I also found post-processing – something I was completely unaware of before I really started getting into photography. For me, post-processing is calming – almost meditative. When I would normally get mired in a cycle of negative thinking or flop myself in front of the TV (my particular drug-of-choice during depressive episodes), I instead would lose myself in post-processing. I can forget about the outside world and focus only on one frame.

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Final Thoughts

Since 2015, I’ve found a community of photographers both locally and virtually. I have a whole new group of photog friends and participate in local photo walks and events. During a bad week, it’s these photography events that keep me going.

I still struggle with depressive episodes, but photography keeps me centered and creative and seeing the positive side of life.

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I’ve recently quit my job. Most people don’t know that – I’ve not made a big deal of it. I finally decided that a stable job and the money weren’t worth anything if I’m gone. The next year is about getting mentally healthy again maybe trying for a different path in life. Photography will likely be a big part of that process.

It’s a complete coincidence that my Photo Challenge this week is on photographing beginnings.

I’m currently organizing my thoughts around the coping strategies that I’ve used during periods of depression and anxiety. As a life-style choice I leave medication to the last possible option so I’ve explored other ways of handling the stress. I hope to share these soon as part of a photo book.

Photo Tibetan Monk

What I wrote the day I posted this photo: “Something a bit different for me, today. I hardly ever capture people in my photos. Tibetan monks are starting a mandala on campus and this is from their opening ceremony.”

This post is simply to add my voice to others who share my experiences with anxiety and depression and use photography or some other art form as a form of therapy or coping strategy. It’s important to be open and talk about mental health issues.

I have found photography helpful and others who struggle with similar issues might as well. Please pass this post along to anyone who might benefit.

Art changes how we see the world – Art changes how we see ourselves.

#PhotographyForLife

 

Hot lines in U.S.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (273-TALK)

Crisis Text Line https://www.crisistextline.org/

Text anything to 741741