As this week is world mental health week, I wanted to write a little about photography and mental health. Specifically, how photography can be hugely beneficial for our mental health. It can boost general well being and mood even if we have no specific issues.
Personally, I have a long history of mental health struggles. The last 20 years have been somewhat of roller coaster with disordered eating, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and a bunch of associated problems. I’ve always been very open to talking about my experiences. I fully believe that people should feel no shame for suffering these kinds of illnesses. By having these conversations we can break the stigmas and understand and support each other better. Here, I am going to talk about various ways in which photography can be therapeutic across all genres and specifically how it provides healing for me.
We spend so much of our lives rushing around. We try to fit everything in, often not really aware of everything around us. Photography allows us to slow down and spend time focusing on details. Whether you’re a macro photographer noticing the tiny curve of a stamen, or a documentary photographer noticing how your son’s cheeks dimple as he smiles. These fine details can bring a smile to your face.
As photographers we take time to observe our surroundings. We consider the light, the colours, the textures and how we can best use these to tell a story though our images. We wait for the moment we want to capture. The sun to be just at the optimal position for golden light. For the bride to glance lovingly at her new husband, or the bee to pause on the flower. This slowing down means we are more mindful about what we are doing. Our breathing and thoughts also slow. It’s better for our photography and better for our well-being.
We all know how breathing fresh air, absorbing vitamin D from the sun and getting your heart rate up with a walk is good for us. Photography provides a great reason to go outside. Going for a stroll in the woods, listening to the calming sounds of water at the beach or watching the sunrise over a pretty landscape can be so beneficial. It boosts your mood. It reduces your stress and helps you sleep better. Sometimes, just putting on your shoes and heading out can be the hardest part. But if you are motivated by the desire to shoot (or even if you don’t want to but you need to for a project or loop), this can help overcome that hurdle and once you are out you’ll feel better for it.
Whichever stage of the process you prefer – be it the preparation, the shooting or the editing – photography allows you to creatively express yourself. A part of how you are feeling will naturally emerge in the art you create. You may even find elements from your subconscious appearing too. Your finished piece may surprise you. It could allow you to process something you were struggling to put into words.
I generally spend very little time planning a shot. But for some, setting up an elaborate flatlay, making props or preparing a cute lifestyle scene ready for their children to enjoy can be hugely therapeutic. Planning can be the part they benefit from most. For me, shooting is the stage I find most relaxing and helpful mentally. I love to spend time capturing my subject from many different perspectives. I like to use lots of different lenses and creative techniques. My favourites are freelensing, reverse freelensing, double exposures and using Lensbaby lenses and Omni filters. Occasionally I’ll try ICM. I also like shooting through a copper tube, straws, or anything else that pops into my imagination or I see and fancy trying!
The final stage, in which many people also find great enjoyment is editing. This could be as simple as the tones or level of contrast you choose. Or maybe you love spending much more time in Photoshop adding overlays. Maybe creating intricate composites or making a diptych is what you enjoy. It’s a great way you can truly express yourself.
Self portraits are not something that I personally find very beneficial as they tend to induce more anxiety than they calm. But for many people this is a hugely important genre for healing. They can be a way to promote self-love and self-acceptance. They can communicate feelings that you cannot otherwise express. It allows you to explore alternative roles with just you and the camera (remember you do not always have to share what you create) and in this way discover more about your own identity.
The final way I’m going to mention here (though I am sure there are many more and for each individual it will be different) is the connections and opportunities photography opens up. Making friends with people who have the shared interest is much easier and it is so fulfilling to feel part of a community. Through Hello Storyteller and other photo groups I have “met” so many lovely people. People who are there to support me both in my photography and in my day to day life. I thoroughly enjoy being able to do the same for them.
There’s so much I could talk about on this topic but I hope it has given you a little food for thought. Whether it’s the sense of accomplishment from just doing something. Or it’s creating a piece of art from your soul that reveals your inner emotions. Or simply making a new friend that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. This activity we’re all passionate about can have great benefits for our mental health.
Despite everything I have said and how much I believe photography can be very therapeutic in many ways, I am not actually recommending photography as a replacement for genuine psychological therapy. If you are struggling with your mental health, please know that it’s okay and important to seek professional help. Additionally, I recognize that photography can itself negatively impact mental health so if you are finding this to be the case please be kind to yourself and put the camera down for a while. Sending you all love. xx