So I'd like to talk a little about mental health and photography and, more specifically, I’d like to look at whether photography can help with mental health.
But before I get going with today's post, just a quick disclaimer:
I am not a qualified mental health practitioner and any thoughts and ideas that I discuss below are formed through my own experiences and through speaking with others. I would strongly suggest that, if you are struggling with your own mental health, you should speak to your doctor or another qualified mental health practitioner.
Mental health can mean different things to different people and there are a whole range of medical and psychological conditions that fall under the umbrella of mental health. We're all so different and, with so many different mental health conditions, it isn’t really surprising that there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all treatment for mental health conditions.
With this in mind, I am putting together a series of posts on mental health and how photography has helped me and others I've known, through periods of difficult mental health. My hope in putting this series together is to share some of the tips and advice that have helped me in the past, in the hope that a few other people may also find some value.
Before I go any further, I’d like to give a shout-out to another landscape photographer for inspiring this series. A few weeks ago, I watched an amazing video by photographer and YouTuber Joseph Seager. In his video called "5 ways photography is good for your mental health", Joseph talked very openly and honestly about his own battle with mental health and how he used photography to help.
I'm not going to completely plagiarize Joseph's video through this series of blog posts, so if you want to see his full list, please watch his video (follow the link above). However, I would like to expand on some of his points, as well as discuss a few of my own, on how photography has helped my own mental health and how it might be able to help yours (or someone close to you).
So, to kick off this Mental Health and Photography Series, let’s look at Focus............
In this case, I'm not talking about focusing on getting a sharp image, but instead focusing on the landscape and the environment around you. Joseph Seager touches on this in his video, but I would like to talk a little more about how focus has helped me with stress and dips in my own mental health.
Photography takes a lot of concentration and focus. Before I even go to a new location I research, plan and then, when I arrive in a new area, I spend a long time walking around, looking for compositions that might work. When I think I may have found a possible composition, I'll then usually spend some time exploring different angles, perspectives and even different focal lengths before settling on a final position for my camera. It's then often a case of waiting for the light, watching how the light interacts with the scene and just waiting patiently for the conditions to come together - which often they don't!
The point is, capturing an image is a time consuming and completely immersive experience. I shoot predominantly landscapes, however it’s no different for other forms of photography, such as street, wildlife or woodland photography.
Focusing on a scene and becoming completely immersed in it can be a truly magical experience. How often do we really stop and look at what's around us in any real depth? Probably not very often if we're honest (I know I'm guilty of this). But going to somewhere and really examining the objects in the scene in front of you; paying attention to how they interact with each other, being aware of how they make you feel and just watching how the light moves across the scene and highlights people, trees, water, mist, clouds or buildings can be a wonderful experience.
"Through your attentive eye, all things will shine with significance"
- David Ulrich | Zen Camera
Many people try meditation and mindfulness training to learn to quieten their minds in an attempt to just “be” in the present moment. Many of the techniques taught in meditation and mindfulness focus on being completely present in the moment, without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. I always think it sounds like it should be easy, but it really isn’t!
Many thousands of people throughout the world have found these practices really helpful, but I’m afraid it’s really not for me! I’ve tried meditation and I’ve tried mindfulness, but I’ve always struggled to quieten my mind. Meditation masters call it the monkey mind; our mind swinging from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in a jungle. If this is true, then I think my monkey must be hyperactive – it’s never still, especially when I try to meditate!
But photography is completely different. Through photography I can become completely immersed in what I am doing, thinking of nothing else but my surroundings and how I can best capture the scene in an image, I am usually very much living in the present moment, unable to focus on the past or present, detached from my worries and anxieties and unable to concentrate on anything else. If I can connect with the present in this way and really focus on my surroundings, I find it almost impossible to think of anything else. My mind is quiet and I am 100% present in the here and now, in a way that I have never managed to achieve through meditation or mindfulness training.
I’ll do a full post on mindfulness, photography and mental health in another post in the future. But for now, I’d just like to re-iterate the point that learning to focus when I'm with my camera and allowing myself to become completely immersed in my surroundings, has really helped me to quieten my mind, de-stress and reduce any anxiety that may be simmering under the surface. I usually think clearer and feel more positive after a photography trip (even if I'm only out for an hour)!
And the beauty of learning to focus to improve mental health? It’s so accessible to everyone!
Most towns and cities have parks, canals, rivers, interesting architecture and characters to observe and photograph and you really don't need a "good" camera to get this immersed in photography. I often go out with just my smartphone in my pocket and approach an image in exactly the same way as I would if I had my DSLR.
A smart phone, point and shoot camera, bridge camera or full DSLR - it really doesn't matter. Even if you don’t have a camera with you, you can still practice focusing by just sitting and watching your surroundings with a photographers eye. What really matters is that you allow yourself to become completely immersed in your surroundings.
So focus, not just on a sharp image, but on all that's going on around you. Be part of the scene, immerse yourself into it and take in all the nuances and details of the subjects in front of you. It'll certainly make you a better photographer and it may even give your mental health a bit of a boost!
Do you agree or disagree with any of the points I’ve made in this article? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and share your insights!
Next month will be the second part of my Mental Health and Photography series. If you want to make sure you don’t miss out, please subscribe to my regular Newsletter to follow my adventures and keep up-to-date with my blog.