How I fight Depression with Photography

Introduction

Hi, my name is Frank and this is my story of light and dark.

I’ve been kind of contemplative and introverted my entire life and always felt isolated somehow, but I never thought that there might be something seriously wrong with me. In 2011, a therapist diagnosed a depressive episode for the first time. The trigger was a relationship break up. Since then, my life has changed, in both good and bad ways. I was married, however my wife left me because after fighting very hard for so many years, she just couldn’t cope my depression any longer. The hole I dragged her into was too deep and dark, which I still feel very sorry about to this day.

Depression is stigmatized in Germany meaning that lots of suffering people fear talking about it, because in today’s society it’s all about humans having to function. If you don’t function, you’re weak. If you don’t fit into the system, you’re weak.

I want to break with that. I learned from my experience that talking openly about my depression with other people helps me processing and fighting it. Every time I opened up myself to someone else, telling them my story, they just wanted to understand depression and how it affects me. Some people even outed themselves to me after I told them I was depressed. All these experiences tell me that we need to talk about depression.

Over the years, it turned out that photography helps me to cope with my depression. I found that it acts as a kind of therapy for me. In this article, I will share my experiences on that with you.

What’s a Depression?

It’s almost impossible to describe to a mentally healthy person, how a depression feels like. In all the books I have read about depression, the authors stated that they have tried several times and failed! Explanation attempts always ended up in some weird discussion, raising more questions than answers. I can only briefly describe, how I personally feel and behave differently, when I’m in a depressive episode.

Lots of people think that being depressed is just a synonym for being very very sad. That’s actually not even close to true! When I am depressed, I don’t feel anything at all, neither bad nor good. I can’t cry and I can’t laugh. Things that used to excite me don’t bother me at all. My drive, emotions, feelings and impulses are all simply gone! I turn into myself more and more and isolate myself from the rest of this world. I can’t talk to anybody and want to stay in bed all day. Music that I usually love doesn’t touch me. If people close to me try to talk to me it feels like a radio connection from the moon.

The underlying biochemical cause is a brain with too little serotonin, causing neurons to stop firing. This is exactly where anti-depressants come into play, trying to inhibit the reduction of serotonin in the body.

How does Photography help?

I observed that photography does something with me when I am depressed. The thrill of getting a good shot excites me, even though nothing else does. But I thought about what it is in photography that helps me and I will try to break it down:

Self-Expression

Photography is undoubtedly a way of self-expression. On my introduction page it says I like lonely and abandoned places. When I look at my photos that absolutely fits in my opinion. Most of the locations I shoot streets at are lonely subway or train stations, underground, dirty, nasty, shabby buildings. I prefer black and white photos with rather hard contrasts. When I thought about that in the shower the other day it suddenly became clear: I’m shooting how I feel inside!

Projects

Lots of therapists say that having a well structured daily routine antagonizes depression. I experienced that it helps me and having long-term photography projects motivates me to go out and shoot. Getting something done and fulfilling a (simple) task gives me a feeling of success. One of my latest projects that motivates me a lot is the #365DOORS project. It all started as a regular 365 days challenge, but I wanted to set myself a theme so that there’s an actual photographic challenge. This project challenges me every single day, because I have to go out there for at least half an hour, take a walk and discover something new.

Attention

Lastly there’s social media or more general: Showing photos to others. Many people will deny it, but getting attention on social media platforms does give me a little boost in self confidence. However, I also want to mention that it’s important to not get sucked in by social media. Do photography for you and yourself, not to entertain others or for the likes and followers, which can be very addictive!

Why Street Photography?

Documenting human life on the streets is a quite a challenging photography genre and I think it helps me for several reasons.

The Thrill

Street photography gives me an amazing thrill whenever I get a great shot. Well, at least great to me, that’s enough! Whenever I observe something “special” on the streets and my curiosity is bigger than my fear to approach strangers to take their photo, my body gets an adrenalin rush. Getting the shot and realizing that nothing bad happened afterwards is a great and satisfying feeling. I get that thrill even if I screwed up the photo, because I tried!

Human Interaction

Another thing is human interaction. Getting in touch with people in the streets makes me feel less isolated and being part of something, being part of a society. Even if someone is angry at me for taking their photo and they start a discussion, I had an interaction with another human being. At the end of the day, it all adds up to a set of interactions that somehow make me happy. However, it all depends on my mood on a particular day. There are days where I actually prefer being alone and don’t like human interaction. But being able to be alone is also a good thing!

Being Different

Street Photography is somehow different. Like many other genres, street photography has lots of sub-genres, too. However, there’s something special about it that other genres don’t have, to me. I have the feeling it allows me to express myself better. It allows me to express feelings I have and to visualize my depression.

Tolerance

This might be controversial and I can’t even explain it very well. I think street photography is forgiving more in technical terms and forgiving less in terms of content than other genres. In other words: You can make a technically perfect photograph that’s absolutely boring to look at (I think this might even be a quote of some famous photographer). On the other hand I have seen stunning street photos, which are out of focus, blurry or don’t follow any composition rules at all. I love that degree of tolerance.

Techniques

Summing things up, here’s a list of reasons why (street) photography helps me fighting my depression.

  • Photography is a great way of self-expression. It gives us a great channel of showing feelings and giving depression a character.
  • Doing regular photographic challenges and projects like a 365 day challenge, for example, will introduce a structured daily routine.
  • Sharing photos with others is a great way of getting feedback and boosts your self confidence.
  • Attending photo walks is an amazing way of getting in touch with other like-minded people and will prevent the feeling of isolation.
  • Especially Street Photography helps me to feel anything at all. Whenever I don’t feel good or bad, this genre gives me a thrill and makes me feel alive again.
  • Taking portraits of strangers on the streets can lead to some amazing human interaction. It doesn’t necessarily have to be candid. Even the smallest talk can lead to a good mood.
  • Street Photography offers great ways to be experimental and expressive. There are so many ways to express yourself and what you feel.

Getting Help

If you have suicidal thoughts, trust me: It’s not the answer, it never is! You are not alone and there are people who care about you!

In Germany, call 110 or 112 for emergencies! If you want to talk to somebody, call 0800-1110-111 or 0800-1110-222

In USA, call 911 for emergencies! If you want to talk to somebody, call 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK

Further Reading

Here’s a list of interesting reads for depression. Unfortunately, almost all of them are written in German.

  • Susan Forward: Toxic Parents; ISBN: 978-0553381405 (German translation: Vergiftete Kindheit; ISBN: 978-3442124428)
  • Stefanie Stahl: Das Kind in dir muss Heimat finden; ISBN: 978-3424631074
  • Project Semicolon: Your story isn’t over; ISBN: 978-0062466525
  • Jana Seelig: Minus Gefühle; ISBN: 978-3492060219

Links