Depression and Photography
In a photo essay, street photographer Murray Dejager described his early foray into using his camera as psychological therapy. Specifically, Dejager felt that his camera functioned as the Therapist, helping him witness his own feelings in ways that he found difficult to see on his own. “All I knew was that when I walked the streets of downtown with my camera, looking for images that captured the way I felt inside, I felt better,” he wrote in a short essay. Similar to Dejager’s discovery, photographer Richard Wood and I discussed this very topic last year, and again I encountered the same topic at a consumer tech conference. Is there a way to shoot depression with photography?
Silent Witness: The Camera
In Yoga, practitioners talk about the Witness Consciousness, that voice that you hear in your head that represents the body’s wisdom versus your own ego or “false self”. The Witness is the “who” of “who is experiencing this moment?” in Yoga-speak. This is the voice that says things like, “Everything is OK” and “I feel safe, so go ahead and approach that edge”, while one choice-lessly observes what is occurring. A Witness does not give out negative advice; it is not cajoling, sarcastic, or punitive in nature. Similarly, when you take a photo, the lens captures what the eye sees, without judgment, yet with full choice-less observation. What we don’t talk about enough is how much one’s own psychological soil influences just what we allow the eye to see above the surface.
For example, I once was a passenger in a car with a friend. As we drove on the freeway past a series of tall buildings on a Sunday evening, I noted that the few lights in just a couple of offices felt lonely to me. My friend was surprised; he said he didn’t see buildings in this way. When I made that comment, I was single and feeling alone. If had taken a picture of that building, what do you think the chances are that the photograph would be post-produced in low-light filters and b/w, versus a “hi-fi” retro filter with natural light bouncing off the windows? Would I have captured a lone figure on the street corner below the building, with the rush of cars zipping by from the freeway?
Rather than the silent Witness of the camera telling us what we feel, the photograph can reflect back to the viewer the possibilities of story and emotion, as well as the actual emotion of the photographer. We have the choice then to take our emotions with us and photograph what we see, or photograph whatever seems appealing, and then allow the photographs to speak back to us about what we might be feeling.
Shooting Depression Without Breaking The Bank
Do you remember the first camera you ever owned? Mine was a Point and Shoot (PNS), with no zoom capability, a tiny flash, and a back-loading door to align your film and hope that the little teeth advanced the film properly. I’d send my film for developing and receive it back in a week or two, expecting more than half of the negatives to be worthless and even more of the photos to be overexposed or otherwise unusable.
We should be absolutely amazed that the average consumer has access to tools that allow us to take beautiful photos and share them. Yet many of us do not take advantage of the power that we hold in our back pockets and in our hands. The photo above was taken with an iPhone4S. While I still needed to frame the photo and create shadows by positioning a couple of people out of the frame (see their shadows cast between the chairs), everything else depended on natural lighting a couple of good filters.
Smartphones with high resolution cameras have completely changed the way we take photos. Dan Marcolino, author of iPhone Obsessed, noted in his workshop on iPhone photography at Macworld|iWorld2013 that most of us would not bother to set up an expensive and heavy SLR camera, let alone attach the correct lens for another $1500, to capture pictures of the mundane. Yet few of us would hesitate to pull out an iPhone from a back pocket, slip a tiny iPhone macrolens over the iPhone camera, and shoot a couple of pictures. Even fewer people would stop themselves from taking that same photo if they knew how easy it is to use applications in post-production to create amazing photos that are winning awards as if they are a new art form unto themselves.
And in a way, they are a new art form: iphoneography as its own category has grown from a small following of people in 2009 to a blossoming community of amateurs and professionals creating photo art that wasn’t available until recently. At Macworld, I stood in front a gallery station that included film and photos created on iPhones. Instead of photographers keeping their secrets to themselves, each willingly offered the names of software applications or techniques used to create the stunning effects on their award-winning photos. Instagram sponsored the iPhone photo contest, and I bet winners used a multitude of Social Media platforms to help get their photos published widely.
Most apps for iPhone are either free, a couple of dollars, or under $50 for full-editing suites. If you do not wish to invest in expensive photo editing software, the average consumer has a plethora of affordable options. Similarly, lens are also reasonably priced. No more sticker shock when you buy a standard camera, only to realize that the lenses add an additional $1500 or more. Richard can attest that his initial investment in camera equipment has well surpassed $10,000. On the other side of that coin, I’ve spent less than $50 on iPhone-related photo editing apps over the past two years. You simply do not have to break the bank to shoot some decent photos, and while they may not be award-winning, they can do the trick when it comes to using your camera as a psychological Witness to your current journey.
Photography in Community: A Healing Forum
It is one of my hopes to launch a series of workshops and community forums where Richard Wood and I assist people to explore photography as a way of seeing the world and capturing as well as archiving our emotional states, including depression. I think both joy and depression are excellent emotional states to try to capture in this way. As soon as we get our workshop ideas together, we’ll let you know how you can participate. Whether you have a “real” camera, a PNS, or a smartphone camera, we’ll show you how to take better photographs, include a shooting expedition in the city, post-production tips, and a Q and A section for looking at photography through a psychological lens. If you are interested, contact me via my contact form on the website, and mention in the subject line that you’d like to be notified about our upcoming psycho-educational workshops.
If you are still not convinced that photography can capture deep emotions in a meaningful way, I highly recommend reading John Daido Loori’s The Zen of Creativity: “Our art is always communicating, and we need to be conscious of what its message is.” In his writing, he shares an extraordinary experience of witnessing the death of a young boy and the cries of his father during a photography retreat, while noticing even a year later the deep depression he experiences in the wake of tragedy through his photographs.
Anticipating that this area of my professional services will intersect well with my interests in art, I’m guessing that I will find a way for clients past and present to anonymously add their photos to a gallery exploring the topic of psychology and photography. For now, I have but one page on my website, Fotography, with a placeholder message that we are working on offering something to the community. I hope to build it into a place of dialogue and exploration, healing, and artistic expression.
You do not need to be a professional photographer, a client of SDC, or even someone who has or is struggling with issues of mental wellness or challenge. If you have produced a photograph you believe captures soulful expression of the human mind and its struggles, you may submit your photo with a release to publish it with or without a photo credit by sending it offline to imei dot hsu @ gmail dot com.
[Please note: we will not accept photos featuring gratuitous nudity, violence towards women or children, or photos with text captioning that includes profanity or political slogans. Your photos may have a better place for publication than a psychology microblog].