Since my teenage years there have been times in my life where I’ve struggled with my darker emotions and found myself having to seek professional help to cope with my feelings. Thankfully this has not been that often and whilst for me it feels like my world is falling apart I know what I experience is mild compared to others. The help I sought is usually in the form of counselling, therapy and medication. For those who have experience of anti-depressants you’ll know that they don’t make you feel happy, but instead make you feel less depressed, a crucial difference. My personal experience of them is feeling emotionally numb – I cease to feel anything extreme (sad or happy), I simply exist.
My experience has taught me to be emotionally self-aware and I can usually pick up the tell-tale signs early on that things aren’t right. So when I last felt my “black dog” returning my first reaction was to seek out professional help again.
However, knowing how this medication affects me and the prospect of going on a waiting list for counselling didn’t fill me with hope, instead I wanted to explore alternatives and looked towards photography as a way of working through my feelings. I should stress that I am not advocating this as an effective form of therapy or a replacement for medication and I did discuss my decision with my doctor. At first she was reluctant but eventually did support me with my self-help approach.
So how did I manage to pursued my doctor to agree to this and how did photography replace traditional interventions? Well, to start with I am aware of the benefits of outdoor exercise (however gentle) can have on my well-being, but often motivation can be a problem especially when I’m already feeling low. But sometimes having a camera around my neck is just enough motivation to get out of the house. It didn’t matter what shots I took or if I even took any, my camera gave me the permission I needed to get up and out, it legitimised me going for a walk. I’d often spend all day out with my camera, coming home tired. But it was a physical tiredness, not an emotional one. Sleep came easier to me as a result and eventually my nights ceased to be interrupted by dark and disturbing dreams.
The second part of my self-help was to use my photography as a form of therapy. I began by thinking honestly about how I was feeling and I wrote down words that came to mind – Broken, Lonely, Out of Place, Not Belonging, Vulnerable, Isolated were some of the words and phrases that I was drawn to. I tried to reflect these feelings in my work. My thoughts turned immediately to self-portraits but not in the traditional sense. Rather than physically turning the camera on myself I wanted to redefine what a self-portrait is. I began shooting objects and scenes that I felt reflected how I was feeling. A broken fence, a smashed windowpane, I even found an old leather sofa abandoned on the street. To me these were as much of a true reflection of me as any traditional self-portrait I could take.
Having said that I did progress to turning the camera on myself and I took a series of shots showing me in a vulnerable state. Again thinking about how I was feeling I tried to represent those raw emotions through my images. Usually I opted for a close cropped shot of me with a shallow depth of field to bring the viewer in and create a sense of uncomfortable intimacy and closeness. Other times I added negative space to emphasise the distance I created for myself when I was down as well as reflecting how my dark inner thoughts filled up the space around me.
Adding to the uncomfortableness I was trying to create for the viewer I was often unclothed which also emphasised my vulnerability. I rarely looked directly into the camera instead my eyes were hidden, symbolising shutting out the world around me and becoming introspective. At the same time I didn’t want anything in the shot that detracted from these raw emotions, so I thought carefully about what to include and exclude from the frame. Colour and lack of it also came into play. For some shots I used a limited palette playing on the emotional effects of colour. For others I stripped out colour altogether by converting them to black and white emphasising the stark emotions.
My overall objective was to explore my emotions, and I went from having these feelings take over and control me to my recognising them; accepting them; owning them and eventually moving on. Also the physical act of taking photos kept me occupied and once completed created for me a sense of achievement and worth.
Whilst I never intended to show these images to anyone as they are too personal (and I probably wouldn’t have taken them if I thought others would see them), I have shared some, and I’ve included one shot here. But as the process was extremely cathartic for me I’m more open to sharing them, in fact I feel quite proud of what I've created even though they show me at a low point. So much so that recently I submitted some into a photography competition highlighting mental health issues. I don’t kid myself I will be shortlisted but for me it highlights how far I have come – from taking a series of shots for no other reason than my own therapy to sharing them as part of a major international photography competition - for me this is quite an achievement.