Using photography to nurture your mental health

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I’m probably not bringing breaking news to you by saying that life is stressful. No matter how much we try to prepare, we can’t always control what it throws at us.

Looking after our mental health is a conversation that’s been gaining traction over the last few years (as it should be!), and an increasing number of us are taking the issue seriously.

Much like physical health, there are things mental-health services can do to help when you’re in crisis. However, there are also steps we can take ourselves to help keep our mental health as robust as it can be during times of stress and strain.

an electrical power box on the street with a jimi hendrix quote on it
'When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace'

Speaking from experience ...

I have ME/CFS (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, aka Myalgic Encephalomyelitis).

Most days, I feel like I’ve had about four hours’ sleep on the back of a night out. My brain is foggy, sleep doesn’t refresh me, and my limbs feel like they’re made of wet sponges. Going out in the evening is a rare treat for me.

Apart from picking the children up from school, I leave the house only once or twice a week.

Every time I get a cold, it hits me hard. My immune system over-reacts and I feel like crap for a week. I’ve had to adjust my life accordingly, which is why – apart from the artefact photography I do – I work from home. I’m lucky that, despite the fact I was rather thrust into home-working, I love what I do, I find it very fulfilling and have made it work.

There’s no medication or therapy for CFS (yet). I’ve learnt to pace myself, to know how much I can manage before I have to stop. This has enabled me to do things like the amazing photography projects I’ve worked on at the Garstang Museum and Manchester Museum.

(Thankfully, researchers have made interesting discoveries over the last few years. Digging deep inside the immune system, they’re finding biological differences, such as chronic systemic inflammation and misfunctioning immune cells.

Hopefully, treatment’s now only a few years away.)

To add to that, I also have ADHD and some dyspraxia. I’ve known I have some neurodiversity since 2005, but I wasn’t diagnosed with the ADHD until 2019, and it was like the proverbial scales dropping from my eyes.

The lifetime of disorganisation, flitting, inconsistency, being distracted by the shiny things, and general executive function disorder. And struggling to live up to expectations and not fulfilling my potential, has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of a late diagnosis.

But, with my diagnosis, I now know that I’m not dysfunctional; my brain just works a little differently. Now, I’m learning new strategies and starting to play to my strengths more.

Because of these things life’s thrown at me, stress has been a long-term companion. And it has a particularly bad effect on my CFS. (There is, of course, a well-established link between stress and the functioning of the immune system.)

This is not intended to be a woe-is-me introduction. More … I-feel-ya. Most of us have aspects of our life that cause us stress, and not always things we can change. We can’t always protect ourselves from what life throws at us. But we can have control over how we react to them, and find ways to make ourselves more robust psychologically.

Having things in our life that we enjoy and help us relax is important for the resilience of our mental health. For me, it’s photography.

Using photography as therapy

Art as therapy

We know that ‘creative’ pursuits have therapeutic benefits on mental health.

Art therapy is used to help those with severe mental health issues, and there are renowned artists who use their art as cartharsis and a way to express emotions.

Just think of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the piece of art she created with the bed she spent four straight days in, consuming nothing but alcohol, whilst in the middle of a major depressive state.

tracey emin's my bed at the tate liverpool
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' at the Tate Liverpool

Art is creation.

It can be painting abstract shapes in bright colours on a canvas; moulding clay into weird and wonderful mythological creatures; creating photo-realistic portraits of people using just a pencil; sitting in paint and making bum-prints on paper, doodling whilst chatting on the phone; or sprinkling a hundred statues of your naked body along the Merseyside coast.

a couple posing for a photo with one of the anthony gormley another place iron men
Anthony Gormley's Another Place on Crosby beach

There is a freedom to creating a piece of art. You can do what feels good to you and you get to set your own boundaries.

You don’t have to fulfill the expectations of anyone else. You can experiment, get things wrong, and suffer no consquences.

You can express yourself however you want and it’s something you have complete control over.

It’s something you do just for yourself, and noone else.

Is photography art?

You don’t so often see photography being suggested for art therapy.

After all, some might dispute that photography is art at all.

An artist – a painter or sculptor, for example – has to learn how to use their tools, to develop a style, to learn how to get their art looking how they want, refining and reworking many times over. Practising every day. Making decisions over colour, shape and form.

Photographers, however, point a camera and press a button. Simples, yeah?

Hmmmmm.

The main fundamental difference I see between art and photography, is that when you create a piece of art, you start with nothing, and build up. With photography, you start with everything, and narrow down.

Where they meet, however, is in more ways than you might realise.

As a photographer, I have tools to use. The camera, the lenses, the light (natural and artificial), the tripod and the editing software.

I develop a style (I’ve had people recognise my photos online without my name being attached to them). I practise (the number of photos I have on the computer compared to those I actually publish is phenomenal!). I reshoot. I make decisions about composition. About colour versus black and white. About the position of lighting. About shutter speed, aperture, ISO and lens. And I refine and rework on the computer as part of the creative process.

So yes, photography is art. Just a different form of art.

Oh, and UK copyright laws protect photos as creative work, along with art, writing and music. So there 🙂

a sunflower in the sunshine
Don't let anyone tell you that photography isn't artistic

How photography can be therapeutic

All the things I said about art being therapeutic can be said of photography, too.

The techniques might be different, but it’s still the act of creating something for yourself using your own ideas and boundaries.

You might love trekking out into the wilderness with a camera and tripod to get those amazing, sweeping landscapes. You might hang out in towns and cities, capturing those fleeting moments of everyday life. You might love working in a studio with carefully set out lights and subjects, be they people or objects. Or it might be capturing events, your children or your pets.

a labradoodle puppy
Obligatory cute puppy pic

It’s whatever you want it to be.

When you’re purposeful and present with your photography, it becomes an act mindfulness – a practice whose benefits to mental health are now being recognised – and can be done any time, anywhere, by anyone.

Your camera works as a buffer between you and the rest of the world. It makes you look at the world differently. You think about how you’ll frame the picture. What part of the scene you want to include and what you want to exclude.

You can think about how the people around you might improve the photo. It can help you look for those moments of interaction that pass in seconds, but that you can capture for a lifetime.

a woman adjusting the hood on a man's jacket
Under the hood

Photography can help you notice more of what’s going on around you, because you’re looking out for these interesting moments.

It helps bring shape to the world.

It focuses the mind.

You get to be present in this one moment and forget about all the other life stuff you’re usually thinking about.

Even amongst the crowds, it can be calm, thoughtful and  quiet.

You can impose control and organisation on an otherwise crazy and messy world.

For me personally, I’ve found can often keep my energy going for longer when I’m doing photography.

And you can do this. It doesn’t matter what you photograph or what equipment you have. If you have a camera on your phone, you don’t need to buy any extra supplies, books or go to classes. Your artistic equipment is right there in your hand.

Making photography work for you

What aspect of photography turns you on?

You can use your photography in whatever way works for you.

If you’re a technically minded person, you might enjoy learning more about how cameras work, about manual settings, about different types of lens, and how they affect the way your photos look. You might enjoy using your camera on a tripod to capture some carefully set-up, technically sound landscapes or cityscapes.

If you shy away from technology, or you’re a person who likes to do things intuitively or impulsively, just go with your phone or camera on auto mode and get into playing around with interesting compositions and colours. Go with some documentary photography, capturing those moments and emotions.

If you’re a computer person, focus on your software skills. You might enjoy turning your photos into something beyond the realistic using things like composite photography, and adding layers and textures to your photos, to create interesting or weird visual effects.

If you’re a sociable type, you could buddy-up with a friend or two for a session. If you’re more introverted, it can be a great way to explore places by yourself.

Personally, I love mixing it up. I love the solitude of the artefact photography and the work I do afterwards on the computer. But, I also adore going out and about and reacting to moments rather than creating them.

Working with what you've got

You may see all these amazing photos on Instagram of documentary photographers in exotic locations or mind-boggling Nat Geo wildlife photos, and think to yourself that your photography could never be that interesting.

Wrong!

Firstly, your photography is for you. Please don’t fall for that thing of judging yourself by your social media likes. If you feel joy from looking at the photos you’ve taken, then that’s all that matters. Other people liking them is a bonus, not a necessity.

It can help your skills to find photographers to follow online, but for inspiration and ideas, not for comparison.

Secondly, no matter where in the world you live, your life is different, and therefore interesting, to somebody else.

Robert Frank’s The Americans was, and still is, a hugely respected piece of documentary work within the photography world. Yet what he’d photographed was ordinary Americans going about their daily lives. It was that curiosity we have about other people’s lives that he sparked.

If you’re limited because you can’t get out of the house much, or you don’t have much money to get to places, start paying attention to what’s already around you. On a sunny afternoon, I might sit in the garden and photograph the flowers, the insects and my girls playing. Sometimes it’s the way the sun sets between the houses next door. When I’m indoors, it can be a shadow cast on the wall by the late afternoon sun. Or the puppy lying in a particularly cute position. It’s not photography that’s going to change the world, but who cares! It brings me joy.

Using projects to shape your photography

If all the possibilities feel a little bit overwhelming, shape your photography hobby with some projects.

A project is based around a theme, and you could run it for a few days, or keep it open-ended. You could try:

  • Documenting life in your local park
  • Taking photos during a particular type of weather – rain, bright sun, fog
  • Finding interesting signs and lettering on buildings
  • Capturing weird shapes in trees
  • Studying modern architecture
  • Finding things of a particular colour

If you want to do something Egyptology-themed, you could focus on a particular deity, or finding interesting hieroglyphs, or study coffins, for example.

It doesn’t have to be academic. It’s about looking at shape and form.

You could also have your project based upon something as simple as shooting in square format for a week, or just in black and white.

I, for example, have my Egyptian serpents project, as well as ones I’m just starting on stelae and tomb models. But, outside of Egyptology (yes, that does exist in my life …), I’ve also been building up other projects.

I live close to the beach in north Liverpool, which is wonderful for an ongoing documentary project.

people walking on a beach
Winter sunset at Crosby beach

I also seem to have started a project photographing flowers (yes, if something comes about accidentally, that’s just fine!).

Poppies growing in a field
Poppies growing in a field

I love doing documentary photography at cultural festivals and heritage sites.

chinese new year festival
Chinese New Year in Liverpool

You don’t have to do anything with your project. You don’t have to publish it, print it or even tell anyone you’re doing it.

It’s about having a play, having some fun and seeing what happens. If it doesn’t work, or your photos look a bit rubbish, who cares! You’re the only one who has to see them, so it really doesn’t matter.

If you do want to share your projects, you could do so on a dedicated photo-sharing site such as Flickr, where you can organise your projects using albums.

Similarly, you could make an album for each project on your Facebook profile.

If you love sharing on-the-go from your phone, Instagram might be the place for you.

If you really want to go all-out, you could set up a website. You can use a drag-and-drop service like the Wix website builder or Weebly, where you just drag the elements you want (text box, image etc) onto the page. No coding needed!

If you like getting your hands dirty with technology,set up a self-hosted WordPress site. You still don’t need to know how to code, but it has a steeper learning curve. You would also need to buy your domain name (the www address). This website is run on WordPress.

If you prefer to keep things old-school, you can get your photos printed at a local print shop, or use an online service like the FreePrints phone app or Photobox (you can also make your own photo books on Photobox).

If you’ve never printed your photos, get some done. I still get a surge of excitement when I see my photos printed. It brings a whole new dimension to them. They feel more special. More … alive.

Where to go from here

I really would recommend giving photography a go as a way to relax and unwind. If it doesn’t work, just stop again. You don’t lose anything by giving it a go.

If you’d like make more of your photography, but you’re not sure how to kick it off, I would love to help out. Drop me a line, and we can have a chat about what you might like to try, what equipment you have, and any limitations you may have. I can give you some ideas and recommendations, as well as a couple of project ideas to get going with.

If you have things you want to do, but aren’t sure how, again, please get in touch.

You can use the comments section below, email me at julia@tetisheri.co.uk, use my contact page, or DM me on any of my social media accounts.

If you already have projects on the go and have them online, please share them with me. I’d love to see what you’re doing.

And finally, remember: be kind, be considerate, and help each other out. You don’t always know what someone has going on in their lives.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.

If you’re really struggling with your mental health, please get help. Go to your doctor, speak to a friend or family member you trust, or phone a helpline. In the UK, The Samaritans have a free number you can phone to speak to someone in confidence. Don’t try to go it alone.

And remember: there’s never any shame in asking for help.

Would you like to work on your photography skills?

I've set up The Lockdown Photography Collective - a community for those who'd like to develop their photography skills using projects and challenges in a fun, no-pressure, collaborative way. I'd love for you to come and join us.

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Unless otherwise stated, all content and photos on this site are © Julia Thorne. It’s a common misconception that images online are free from copyright. Copyright laws still stand. You are free to share on social media, but please link back to this website or tag my social media handle for the platform. If you’d like to use any of my photos in a blog post, presentation, book or other publication, please email me at julia@tetisheri.co.uk. Thank you.

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