Mental Wellbeing and Photography: Cause or Cure?

Let me start by stating that I do not believe that there is one answer to this question, unless that answer is both and that provides an interesting conundrum.

The pressure of making photographs can fill some with crushing anxiety, others find solace through making images and some photographers use photography to explore their own issues through the documentation of others suffering similar issues to themselves. When I first became engaged with photography forty years or so ago I was unaware of many photographers creating work dealing with such issues or photographers experiencing an anxiety based relationship with the medium. Maybe it wasn’t a thing or perhaps it wasn’t so obvious, I don’t know.

The work of Francesca Woodman first alerted me to the idea of photography and mental health. Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado in 1958, and started taking photographs in her early teens while at boarding school. She was brought up in an environment where making and talking about art were part of everyday life as her father was a painter/photographer and lectured in photography at the University of Boulder in Colorado. Her mother was a ceramicist and sculptor. Woodman suffered from depression following a move to New York in 1979 and in 1981, after a failed relationship, she tragically took her own life at the age of twenty-two. Her work evidences her desire to photograph herself, often nude, in empty interiors, usually half hidden by objects or furniture or appearing as a multiple-image-blur. As such, the images convey an underlying sense of human fragility, of impermanence and anxiety. During her short career she took only approximately 800 pictures. 

Woodman’s sad and early demise prevented the work from developing into that of the mature woman reflecting on the evolution of her mental wellbeing, but its influence in subject matter, approach and aesthetic is clear to see in much of the work I see today dealing with similar issues.

I see more introspective work now than any other work. There are initiatives set up to bring this work together such as established in 2015 and run by photographer and artistic director Daniel Regan. An arts website focusing solely on exploring the complex issues of mental health and emotions through photographic projects and artworks, but photography’s relationship with this area is not new. Hugh Welch Diamond, the Medical Superintendent at the Surrey County Asylum and one of the founders of the Royal Photographic Society, created a series of portraits of the patients in his care between 1848 to 1858. His intention at the time was to use these photographs to diagnose and better care for people struggling with mental health issues, and in doing so created images which remain some of the most well-known from photography’s early history.

The increase in conversations about and awareness of mental health today has ignited a new generation of photographers to emerge documenting and confronting their own experience of living with mental illness. Photographers have taken Regan’s documentation and turn it into a form of self-diagnosis.

According to recent research, as much as 25% of photographers struggle with mental health issues. ImagenAI, a software post-production app company conducted a poll in 2019 asking photographers what mental health issues they face Nearly 27% of them state that they experience anxiety, and stress is close behind with 25%. The list goes on with 13.4% of photographers reporting sleep issues, and 6.4% stating that they suffer from depression and panic attacks. 4.8% of people said that they feel lonely, and 2.1% claimed to experience anger issues and OCD.

Fragmentary is not the only platform bringing together photographers dealing with and documenting mental illness. The Broken Light Collective performs a similar function and describes their intentions as a nonprofit to, “create safe and accepting environments where photographers of all levels who are affected by mental health challenges can display their work, as well as inspire one another to keep going and keep creating, despite the dark or scary places in which they may find themselves.”

Put ‘mental health photography’ into Google and you will be met with a torrent of photographers creating work attempting to explore a plethora of mental health issues, many of which documenting their own issues or those people close to them, friends and family members.

This documentation can bring about a process of self-healing. I have seen this happen with students I have worked with, but I have also seen students too fragile to take this root and have to step away from their studies completely to care for their health before challenging themselves photographically. I am not a mental health expert and I can only speak here on the basis of personal experience.

Taking a walk is often seen as a good way to clear the head, and therefore an effective physical act available to all to release anxiety. Taking a camera with you on that walk may give some more of a reason to walk, but also an opportunity to make images free of any pressure. The photographer Neale James has created a podcast focused on this idea, regularly addressing issues of mental wellbeing This is a practice that can see photography acting has a cure, rather than a curse, but it relies on the photographer being able to lose any inhibitions they may have about making photographs. Losing the need to fulfil pre-conceived expectations of outcome and being content to explore the process. Again, a simple Google search for ‘photo walk’ will deliver a multitude of work and photographers engaging in this area of photographic creation.

The pressures that come with working as a professional photographer and relying on a commissioned practice to meet your financial commitments can be triggers too many forms of mental fragility and illness. Shrinking budgets, unrealistic client expectations and an over-heated competitive marketplace have been issues that the professional photographer has had to deal with over the past two decades, but Covid and the following global financial crisis have heightened these issues and created additional financial pressures for the clients that photographers rely upon for commissions.

The concept of a photo walk or documenting the issues they face through the very medium that has caused those issues may be too much for the professional photographer to deal with. Photography is central to their dilemma and to walk away from it may seem like the only option. The idea of photography as therapy maybe a difficult pill to swallow.

Photography can be a cure, but it can also be a curse. The relationship you have with it is going to determine which of these it will be for you. A long term engagement with the medium may be complicated, nuanced and multi-layered, not easy to unpick. It is easy to forget what it was that first attracted you to the medium and difficult to turn to photography as a cure in the way that somebody less engaged with it can do.

A sense of clarity can aid mental health and give a sense of personal control. A similar sense of clarity concerning photography and your relationship with it may provide a similar sense of wellbeing. Most importantly, however you feel, remember that you are not alone and take care.

Image: Francesca Woodman Space², Providence, Rhode Island (1976) © Charles Woodman / Estate of Francesca Woodman and DACS, 2022

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

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