Photo Rainy Day

Photography: Coping with Depression

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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 8.33.04 AM

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

 

44 thoughts on “Photography: Coping with Depression”

  1. An excellent post – well done for discussing the positive effects of creativity. Photography has played a big part in keeping me grounded since I had to give up work due to ill health (MS) . There are day s when I can’t do a lot, and in the current heat I am certainly not very active – but I started my blog about 5 years ago, it has given me focus, challenges to self in improving my craft, and best of all put me in contact with a great bunch of people, some of whom I have met in the flesh. Just off to check your site out in more depth….

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sue. I thought it was important to call attention to the positive effects of the arts in dealing with mental health issues. Those of us who can say something, should.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am so very glad that you are finding ways around your anxiety and depression. Mental illness is a hard topic for most people to comprehend and accept. I have a niece who has struggled her entire lifetime. I have seen what she goes through, basically from her parents and it is hard on my niece and her parents (my sister and brother in law).

    Bravo for speaking up that takes courage and dedication, you have shared the good, bad and ugly. I’m so happy you are finding the good in your life. Every single person deserves to be happy.

    I’m so glad that photography is a large part of your recovery. And yes, your photography brings joy when I see your photos. I know I just met you and I am so glad for it. Photography saved my life too, very differently from your because I had a chronic illness.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Thank you for sharing your struggle and your efforts to regain your emotional and physical health. I just discovered Cee’s photo challenge list and new to enjoying and admiring your creativity. Your photographs are inspiring.

    I have struggled to achieve a very low-level stress lifestyle, giving up my career to recover my health, and keeping the demons of depression and anxiety at bay. I appreciate how hard that effort has been for you. Leaving your stressful career is a huge turning point and I’m very happy for you.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is so inspiring! I wasn’t really diagnosed with depression but I’ve been to the dark place and I remember being so negative about life and everything but I couldn’t really pinpoint the cause as to why. Apart from traveling, I also turned into art that time, poetry became one of my allies. I turned my sadness into art and it helped me see the light again.

    Your photographs are amazing! Thank you for sharing all this. ☼

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very good, I appreciate your approaching to what can also be called melancholy. You also deliver options for behavioral changes, that is one very important aspect in this regard. Thanks a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That is a really thoughtful and helpful post, and though I’m lucky enough not to suffer from depression myself, I can see the positive steps you have identified can help even on ordinary ‘I’m feeling grumpy’ days. I hope they continue to help you. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a lovely post – thank you for being so open and sharing your personal situation.
    It’s scary how many people suffer from depression in silence – I am one of them, having only recently, in the last 6 months, been able to admit to myself and others what I am going through… and even then I’m very selective in who I open up to.
    Your 365 project has hit a nerve for me and I’m thinking that I would love to take up this challenge too… congratulations on hitting your anniversary – 3 whole years is incredible!
    I’m now following you on insta too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I just stumbled into doing a 365 project – initially, I didn’t even commit for the entire year, maybe 6 weeks – in hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It takes a lot of courage to bear one’s soul as you have done here. I take my hat off to you, Jenn. The hardest part, when we are depressed, is opening up to someone else. It can feel like an admission of failure, but actually it is nothing of the sort – so often it is the catalyst to recovery because it results in others sharing their experiences too. And through those conversations we learn and develop coping mechanisms and paths to recovery. Photography for me can be immersive. I lose myself in it and the world is shut out. Seeing beauty is a spirit lifter and as our ‘Eye’ develops we start to see beauty not just in the classical meaning of the term but even in the mundane – something as simple as a curve or a line. And as our archive grows then our images are always with us. To flick through our work in itself becomes a source of pride and joy. We can re-experience those moments when we were uplifted by something seen. I’ve been blogging now since 2011. I have never regretted that decision – each day starts with a new gallery of images from those I follow, and the community to which we both belong is such a supportive one. I’m sure that Photography is Therapy. It keeps us sane.
    I was so relieved to retire from work as a Doctor, it was an incredibly stressful career – I’m a much happier, more relaxed, person in retirement.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve had serious problems with depression and anxiety for my entire life also. It was a renewed interest in photography in a life where my interests had shrunk to almost nothing that led me to starting my blog about parks, but also stuff about photography. Often the fact that I need new material for the blog is the only thing that can get me out of the house, so it’s extremely valuable.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I spent 15 years working on the Golden Gate Bridge and saw many examples of suicides and suicide attempts. My photography helped to keep me focussed on the beauty of the bridge and its surroundings. Depression and thoughts of suicide are not to be taken lightly and I hope that anyone suffering from them can find the strength to reach out for help. The one thing that I heard over and over from the first-responders was that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

    I like your photos and look forward to seeing more of them.
    Ω

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true words. We have to hold onto the quote you gave “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” It doesn’t feel like a temporary problem, but depression is a cycle that ebbs and flows.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for sharing your struggle with depression, and how you are coping. You are a very good photographer, as the many awards that you have won has shown. Mental illness is a difficult illness to share with others, but by telling your story, you have been a big help.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow! Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager, going into very dark and scary places, and hospitalized four times. Photography has helped keep me going. It’s so funny how we say we’re fine when we’re dying on the inside. Thank you for being so open about your journey. You telling your story has helped me decide to begin sharing mine even more.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Jenn, I’ve been following….admiring…your photography for some time on Flickr and when you recently linked to this blog post via an image on Flickr, I clicked through to find what you have written so well about depression here could easily be my very own words and I am grateful for your candidness in sharing what is so often misunderstood or ‘uncomfortable’ for others to hear. I can’t deny I too prepared a similar post (for my blog that I’ve not written in a couple of years) around the events of that week Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both lost their battle with depression. It affected me on a personal level too because I do recognize that depth of depression. I myself have come frighteningly close many times before now and handling depression, particularly navigating darker thoughts and fears around more recent world and life events, is an uphill struggle that I don’t always have the energy for and it’s so hard to share with people just how it feels.

    There’s so much more I could say on this topic, and your posting is very apt for how these past months (and many times over the years, since I was a child) have felt for me too. You have expressed it so honestly here, even you understanding of the face we might show to the world versus the hole that we feel inside when the dark days are all-consuming, that your words could be my own and for that I truly thank you, we are NOT alone 🙂

    I am also happy that your photography led you to saving Gidget’s life too, my own (rescue) cats have kept me going more than I’d dare admit. Who saves who, eh? 🙂

    I am very happy your photography saved you because, in all honesty, I figured from your images that you’ve been a travel photographer all your life. To think it’s only been a more serious hobby for you in the past few years is quite astounding – but reading your post explains why there is something of a deeper connection within your photography, a real sense of ‘seeing’ the beauty, even in the simplest of moments or things. Congrats on quitting the negativity of your previous job – Your journey has hardly started. I wish you the very best! Cheers, Katrina

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Katrina for the comment! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in all of this – that there are kindred souls out there! I wake up each day and try to find something beautiful in the world to photograph – there is always something, one thing, beautiful about today!

      Like

  14. P.S. I can’t seem to edit my previous comment but I wanted to add, photography has been a life-saver for me too – the times it has helped take me out of myself, switch my focus (if you’ll excuse the pun) and to reconnect with and hold tight the simple beauty in life that seems to get lost when the ‘clouds’ roll in. Similarly post-processing is something I’ve started playing around with more lately too, for the same reasons and what I enjoy, and have found somewhat surprising, is that I am often able to process my mood through the processing of an image, and I like the results. It makes me realize that I can nevertheless find artistic beauty and creativity even within a depressive mood – and in doing so it often helps lifts me out.

    So once again, thank you for sharing and speaking – and photographing – so beautifully for so many of us.

    Liked by 1 person

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