A very personal blog: Mental Health and Photography.

September 25, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Watching the news media in the UK, there is lots of coverage about the visit of HRH Harry & Megan to Cape Town in South Africa and their support of mental health charities and causes. 

It is a stark reminder that mental health continues to be a very real issue for many people, and one which carries a great stigma. As the media has focused on driving that conversation, I felt compelled to write this very personal blog. 

Yes, I have suffered from mental health issues. 

That isn't an easy sentence to write. But I do not feel ashamed about it. The first step on any road to recovery is to face up to the problem and reach out for help. I am sure many of my close friends and family will read this blog, and they know what I've endured the past 6 years. I have been on a roller coaster in my life with more downs than ups. And when I take a step back, and I objectively look at the ups, one thing stands out: my photography. 

Canadian clinical psychologist, Dr Jordan Peterson, who over the past 2-3 years has rose to online fame with his best seller "12 rules for life, an antidote to chaos" has been quoted as saying: "life is tragic" and "life is suffering". He asserts that "happiness" is a pointless goal, and we must search instead for meaning, not for its own sake, but as a defence against the suffering that is so intrinsic in our existence. It is a brutal analysis. And if you stop to think about it, it can be daunting and grim to think about the concept that we live and therefore we suffer. But suffering is real but it is relative. Everyone who experiences suffering at a personal level will go through extreme emotions. And it's how to manage those emotions, the impact they have on our own mental health, and the lessons we learn from them, that will define our future ability to cope and traverse life's challenges. Where I live in Belgium, there is a saying in French which is equally brutal "what doesn't kill you, is good for you". The emphasis being, learn from the suffering and become stronger. But how?

So how has photography helped? What role has it played at moments in my life where I've had to endure challenges and suffering?

At a personal level I have to say that the photographic process is for me a means to an end. What do I mean by that? The fulfilment I achieve from photography is in me capturing a scene in nature, or of a wildlife subject and freezing that moment in time for posterity. But that means that first and foremost, I have to get to that scene. I have to get to a vista, a landscape, I have to get in to nature, I have to get in to an animals environment. That "means to the end", means I have to get myself outdoors. It is proven that getting outdoors and into nature has a positive impact on mental health. This can be as simple as doing some gardening, growing some vegetables or flowers. The very act of nurturing something else into life can bring immense meaning and purpose. After all, it resonates that if you can nurture something in nature, you can and should be nurturing and looking after yourself. And so photographically, the concept of "nurturing" translates for me into the "creative" process of capturing the image. 

Even at my lowest points, of which in recent years I've had many, I have turned to my photography. Have I created masterpieces? No. At times the photography has taken a back seat to the process of being outdoors. My previous blogs about searching for dune foxes in The Netherlands are a good example of that. Some of my first visits to the nature reserve early this year were at a time of immense personal difficulty for me. I would walk 8km to the area with immense hope of seeing the foxes....often ending in disappointment. I would then walk back with no images. And despite lots of potential to take images of other subjects (landscapes, deer and birds), I didn't have any motivation to take photos of those subjects. But at the end of that walk I felt better. I didn't feel exasperated at the failure of not getting the images I wanted. I felt a need to return on another day. The momentary disappointment was replaced by a sense of purpose and meaning that one day I would get the sighting I was hoping for. I was proven right. 3 visits later everything fell in place. And the upside? The time period between my first visit and thirds visit was about 7-8 months and I had grown stronger as an individual and was feeling much better in myself. During that period I continued to push myself to get outside with my camera in my hand, even if I wasn't capable of producing the images I was accustomed to. 

What I learnt was you have to have faith that the "creative" process in photography will return. It will come back. You just have to give it time, and you mustn't over think it. At times when you are feeling low, don't put pressure on yourself. One of the aspects of photography that is so powerful is it doesn't have to be a solo pursuit. If you don't feel you have the strength to fly solo, phone a friend and propose going out for a walk. If you are a photographer and have a friend who you think needs support, give them a call and propose a walk or outing in nature with the camera. Never underestimate your own ability to inspire others. Your presence in itself can immensely help someone who is suffering. It will help nurture them. 

Once I got out into nature, I often found that when my state of mind was right, and I was ready for photography, I went into auto pilot mode. I didn't think about things. Everything came naturally. And eventually I found that I started to produce some interesting results that were very satisfying to me. And once I off loaded my cards and worked with the images in Lightroom I had often learnt a lesson or two on how I had captured the image. It gave me immense satisfaction. I would always come away with a feeling of having put myself into a position that I created something, and something that resonated with me personally. That was what provided me with the satisfaction. And with that, the sense of nurturing, and fulfilment. It has an immensely powerful effect because it also gives you the feeling of self-worth. 

With that said let me share with you 3 images I took in the past 12 months at times when I was feeling low. With each of these images I will explain my thought process and how I feel about the outcome. 

Le Hourdel in France: This is a beach that covers the estuary at Le Baie de la Somme. It's known for the WWII German bunker that has toppled. When I arrived on the scene, I found the composition challenging. I realised there were more elements in the scene than the bunker itself. And whilst the water and estuary is more difficult to capture in the image, I decided to take some distance and accentuate the sky. I shot this with a black and white picture profile in both RAW and JPEG. But I shot the image with the intention to convert it to black and white using the selective colour sliders. I was very happy with the resulting image. So much so, that I chose it as one of three images I exhibited at my local camera clubs annual exhibition. Being on the beach, alone, on an early Sunday morning when I took this image was a very solitary experience. The connection that I was able to make with the scene with my camera gave me a strong sense of fulfilment. 

Zandvoort Beach, The Netherlands. I mentioned the dune foxes. Well this image was taken a day before I went on my long 8km walk to search for those foxes. I decided to stay in a hotel in Zandvoort the night before my planned visit to the nature reserve. It was the middle of February and it was cold and cloudy. The light was fading fast. I decided to go for a walk on the beach. Like most beaches in the Benelux region, they are featureless, flat expanses of sand, with no interesting features, cliffs, or landscapes. Basically you couldn't imagine a more uninspiring scene. As I walked the beach, I set myself a challenge: create one image. With a LEE little stopper and a circular polariser, I walked the beach looking for something I could include in the composition. I spotted a few pieces of burnt drift wood and decided I would try and use these as a feature. With just 4 elements: sea, sky, clouds and driftwood, I used a slower shutter speed to create a very ethereal image. This isn't at all my style of photography. This was something that was really pushing boundaries for me. Whilst the resulting image is very simple, I love the white swirls of water as the shallow waves would break and move back out to sea. 

Black headed tern: This image I took whilst taking a walk at Kinderdijk in The Netherlands. The plan was to take some images of the windmills there. However the weather wasn't that great. It was grey and overcast and the light was poor. There were a lot of black headed terns flying and skimming and hovering over the canals. The speed of movement was impressive and this was a critical factor. Observing their flight movement was mesmerising and you could see a certain pattern repeat. Bird in flight shots can be extremely challenging. Combine that with the fact that black headed terns don't have significant colours or markings, I gave a lot of thought as to what type of image I could potentially create. My mind turned to black and white again, mainly because of the sky and the fact I wanted to get some contrast with the subject. I waited for one of the terns to hover. The resulting image breaks many compositional rules. I've place the subject in the centre. And I am taking the photograph of the rear of the subject. But for me this just works. There is an echo of a silhouette without being a silhouette, there is some symmetry without being perfectly symmetrical. The head and beak are visible but give an indication of the birds purpose and intent (to dive downwards). This image isn't just one of my favourite images of this year, it's one of my favourite images of my entire portfolio. It was taken during another difficult moment in my life where I was feeling very low and struggling to cope. But I look at this image with an immense sense of pride. 

To finish, I don't want you to think that photography is the answer. If you are struggling with mental health issues, the first step is to recognise it and the second step is to talk to a medical profession (your general practitioner). Do not feel ashamed. The brain is like any other organ in our bodies. It is a complex entity, it is fragile and it requires care. We can't function without it. We can't find fulfilment in life if it isn't functioning correctly. There is no shame in taking time out and looking after you. But recognise that there are things you can do that will allow you to traverse the most difficult moments you are living through. Take a deep breath. Think about getting outside. And as photographers don't give up the "creative" process. You may not be feeling it in the same way as when you are on form, but I guarantee you that the concept of getting out there with your camera will give you a sense of purpose and perspective. And the results might even surprise and please you and take you to new creative spaces you didn't think you were capable of. 

Above all, look after yourselves and each other...

Until next time...




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