photography and the mentally ill

Photography has played an important part in my life. I first got interested in photography when I about 13 and used disposable black-and-white cameras. Capturing moments that were not staged and people as they really were was my thing. My first picture I felt really proud of was of a friend who I had just stand and purposely not smile. His mother loved the photo and said it was “So him.” 

When I fell into more obvious depression and social anxiety, having a camera became my shield. If I couldn’t enjoy moments with friends, at least I could take pictures of them. 

Young photographer John William Keedy (29) has been taking advantage of his skills to document his anxiety. It took him nearly a decade to start taking pictures focused on his anxiety, and the results are striking. Here is an excerpt from his interview with NPR: 

When did you start shooting the photographs?

It took seven or eight years after I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before I started making these images. And to be completely honest, this started as a way for me to indulge my own anxieties and my own compulsions, but still stay productive in a way.

A lot of the images portray these repeated actions, and I actually performed the actions. So there’s the image with the floss in the sink. I flossed with 300 of these flossers. Thinking about it still makes my gums hurt.

But to be honest, for the most part it wasn’t completely unpleasant. There’s some comfort in the repetition for me. So the project sort of allowed me to indulge in this sort of thinking for a set period of time, and when I was done with a photo, it was fine to get it back under control.

The floss one hurt a lot, though.

At what point did you decide to show them to the public?

It wasn’t originally something that I planned on showing to a lot of people. I was worried about what people were going to think about me and about my mental state.

But after showing them to a few people with mental disorders, and hearing them say that they identified with them, I thought it was important to make an effort to show them more.

There’s a stigma that goes with having a mental illness. It comes with this idea of weakness of will. Which is weird, because if somebody had a broken arm you’d never tell them to will their way out of it. And because it’s not something that a lot of people talk about, it’s easy to feel that you’re alone, that you’re the only one who’s having these thoughts and feeling these feelings

NPR, 2014
The founder of the Broken Light Collective also has a very personal with the pain of mental illness. In the group’s profile in the New York Times, she describes her lifelong struggle and how photography played a role in helping. 


“I thought about killing myself for the first time in seventh grade,” said Ms. Hark, now 33. “I went from therapist to therapist and medication to medication, not comfortable with anyone or any drugs.”

Two years ago, on one of her worst days, something different happened. “I was literally on the bathroom floor, bawling,” she said. “But I picked up my phone and started taking pictures — paint peeling on the door, reflections in the mirror. It just took a couple of minutes for me to become more present, breathing more normally. It was a really important moment.”

NYT, 2014

The Broken Light Collective is an online gallery for photographers with mental illness. Not all of the photos are specifically about mental health, but because all the photographers share similar struggles, the images form an extremely well-rounded perspective on a variety of disorders like bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, OCD, borderline personality, eating disorders, and others. The group just had their first live show in New York City this summer. 

Photography and mental illness have a close relationship because describing disorders like chronic anxiety and depression is really difficult. Even as a writer, I understand the limitations of words. When I was in the worst part of my depression, my journals were either empty or filled with disconnected ramblings. I started painting. Images can convey something that words just cannot. Again, it is hard to explain. Take a look at these images instead.

John Keedy

Screenshot 2014-08-15 at 5.42.12 PM Screenshot 2014-08-15 at 5.41.45 PM Screenshot 2014-08-15 at 5.41.32 PM 

The Broken Light Collective

Screenshot 2014-08-15 at 5.43.16 PM Screenshot 2014-08-15 at 5.43.29 PM

E.S. Huberty

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