Like My Work, Like Me! Photography and the Black Dog

I recently hosted an online conversation for a group of photographers dealing with the subject of mental wellbeing. This is an area in which I have spent considerable time researching with particular reference to anxiety based depression and whenever I speak about this I am always moved by the raw honesty of so many to share their experiences. The stories are personal and the themes consistent.

One of the words that regularly appears as an instigator of anxiety is ‘affirmation’. The need to be told that you are good, that you have succeeded, that you have been accepted, that you are successful, and that you are on the right path is intrinsic to the creative DNA. We do not work within a field of absolutes, of answers and solutions written in books. The solutions we find to solve a creative problem are our own, based on our knowledge, experience and perception. That is a lot of pressure to deal with and it can provide as much of a problem for someones mental health as it can act as an instigator of creativity.

The charity Mind estimates that on average in the UK, around eight in 100 people suffer from anxiety in any given week and incidences of poor mental health amongst creatives are much higher than the national average. This should come as no surprise to anyone engaged with photography, a medium that has been impacted by seismic digital communication evolution over the past two decades. Such changes provoke feelings of insecurity and anxiety. As humans many of us dislike change, particularly rapid change and when that change that is forced upon us our ability to respond positively can be severely challenged.

The decline of the established commissioning environment of photography led by financial decisions based upon technological developments within forms of communication have directly impacted on photographers forms of income. As a result many income streams have disappeared altogether and others have been greatly reduced. Not being able to support yourself and/or your family produces base level anxiety and feelings of doubt. Doubt concerning your worth as a photographer and as a person.

These anxieties and doubts can be controlled by positive responses to our work. These are the affirmations that are needed to provide a balance, a balance between a positive and negative understanding of our own practice.

My young daughter’s school teaches their pupils to be “The best you can be” and to aim to be nothing more than that. Not to base your own self-belief on others opinions or to aim to be someone that you are not. Not to set unachievable expectations and most importantly not to judge your progress on the perceived progress and success of others. This seems to me to be a valuable assertion for photographers and all creatives.

Anxiety based depression is a thing, it exists, but it can be identified and addressed as these true life examples demonstrate

The conversation I led with the photographers began with recognition of how our attitudes to mental wellbeing have changed over the past decades before moving on to talking about potential actions that could be taken to address feelings of sadness, sleeplessness and depression. Some of the photographers shared their experiences, identifying the causes and the steps they have taken to negate those causes and take responsibility for their own mental wellbeing. These included meditation, running, yoga, reading around the subject, healthy eating, CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) walking with a camera and medication. I should mention that none of the people who spoke of medication were positive about the experience. What was clear was that it is important to remember that talking helps and listening supports.

These are coping strategies, and all are important and they do work but my suggestion was in addition to these strategies to look at the Stoics. I didn’t know that I was a Stoic until somebody described me as one. A quick Google search introduced me to what being a Stoic meant and I am happy to wear their badge.

I do not worry about anything I cannot control, I am not overly concerned by the opinions of others, I do not put pressure on myself to achieve something beyond my capabilities and I live for now and not for tomorrow. I listen to opinions and allow the most relevant and informed to guide my decisions, but I am not concerned by negativity or ill-informed criticism. In adopting this approach I minimise anxiety and remove the need for validation. I do my work, but I am okay if you don’t like it, I haven’t created the work to be liked, I have made it because I needed to and if it get’s liked, thats a bonus.

The magician Derren Brown wrote about the importance of the Stoics in his book Happy. It’s a good book, worth checking out, as are the Stoics. There are many strategies you can introduce into your life to help you deal with the issues you will face working as a photographer but understanding the reason for those issues impacting on you at the source could be the most important action you take in ensuring that the black dog, an image that is often used to describe depression, is kept from your door.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His book What Does Photography Mean to You? is available now

© Grant Scott 2020

Image: Bill Jay by David Hurn/Magnum

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