Mental illness robs you of memories – photos bring them back

19 August 2017

A picture tells a thousand words. A common phrase but in an era flooded with images on our screens, in our pockets and our minds, the power of the visual image to stir emotions has never been stronger.

From the earliest traditions of wet plate image making to the one-upmanship of Instagram dinners, photographs have always captured moments in time, enabling storytelling, recollection, and discussion.

But what does that mean for mental health? As a passionate photographer with lived experience of mental ill health, working for a mental health charity I often have a chance to discuss the links between the two. There are three areas of focus that come up for me the most.

Photography as
  • a means of telling stories, and exploring identity
  • an accessible art form which builds skills and confidence
  • a changing media with relevance to mental health

These mix for me. I have always taken pictures and enjoyed writing, so nearly eight years ago a colleague suggested that I try a daily photo-journal on the Scottish photo-journaling site Blipfoto. I got hooked and at the time of writing I have published nearly 3,000 successive daily images.

In 8 years, I have changed. I have gotten a lot better at photography. I have found opportunities to grow my skills to the extent that I actually believe in them. Along the way I have spoken a lot about mental health in my journal. I have learned things about myself and hugely improved my wellbeing through developing a talent and having a daily focus. Finding something (or someone) to photograph daily has become a helpful habit for me. It forces me to break away, get out and gain perspective. The return on this investment is much like the return from meditation: I am more at ease with myself than ever, and with that my connection to places and people has grown.

I’m comfortable with myself and my mental health these days, but reflecting on those thousands of entries I see how my moods have changed, how I dealt with challenges and what I chose to share. Life has changed a lot but I find that I can orientate myself to the day and time with every image and I can track my life and my feelings by comparing the distance travelled between any two shots. In my day job, people often tell me that mental ill health has robbed them of the memory of weeks or years and it is easy to see the value of journaling.

Top Tips for Photo Journaling:

  • Carry a camera everywhere, and use it daily – the camera you have is the right camera
  • Process, select and delete images the same day – then only the good ones stay on your phone or computer
  • Find a platform that works for you – it could be a phot site like Blipfoto, or a social media platform like Instagram or Facebook – but make sure it works for you and that you know who can see it and comment
  • Only post your best – being selective gets you really thinking, and encourages people to look at your images and not just glance or ignore them
  • Set yourself challenges – it’s a good way of learning techniques or shooting pictures you wouldn’t ordinarily take or see
  • Train your eye – look for the one moment that tells a story, or the scene that is a little different
  • Do it for you – if that means others like it great – but if you want to use pictures to learn about yourself or tell your story it’s about what means something to you. Not anyone else
  • Persevere – there will be times when you get obsessive and times when you and lack mojo – press on. It will be worth it
  • Pass it on – offer comment on other photographer’s work, being deliberately positive in your feedback
  • Make it real – make photo books, put your pictures up, and be proud

Documentary photographers have always sought to find and tell stories, and whilst the subject and the story is always critical, the photographer’s interpretation and choice of image is crucial to the way the story is told. For me, relationships are key, and my eye is drawn to moments of connection between people. As well as my daily journal, I’ve been exploring the photo essay as a way of telling stories. Whether it’s super artistic studio photography or Instagram with your phone, there’s a huge value in storytelling through images.

We still face huge challenges in portraying mental health through pictures. Editors seek simple, evocative images and if that involves people clutching their heads or depicts methods of suicide, these images can reinforce stigma or even encourage copycat behaviour. Pictures have always been controversial, and the ethics of photography in relation to mental health could be the subject of a long blog of its own. We certainly have a lot to explore regarding the impact of social media sharing and picture making, and the extent to which the stories we share can trigger or upset the viewer.

We explored a number of these topics as part of The Dust of Everyday Life Arts Conference in 2014, and the podcast of that session is available to listen on SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/smhaff/a-picture-in-min