I have always enjoyed taking photos, from my first disposable camera in a campsite in rural Derbyshire to using it through my Art foundation and Design degree. It was during my last year of university that I first experienced the power of photography to support positive mental health.
I had been struggling with anorexia for 3 years, had reached an all-time low weight of 34kg and narrowly escaped moving into a residential recovery centre. I cannot remember what prompted me, but I gave myself the challenge of taking one photo every day for the whole of my last year of studying. This was at a time where each photo would be saved on a roll of negatives and I would have to wait 36 days to see that photo in print. I didn’t think too hard about each photo, they varied from an early sunrise when I couldn’t sleep, to a piece of rubbish on the streets of Brighton because I liked the colour blue. After each print was developed, I stuck it in an indistinguishable A6 blue sketchbook, a snapshot of a moment, some memorable, some not so. And at the end of the year, I had a visual diary of a year of small steps towards some sense of recovery and hope.
I can’t say that without this activity I would have not started that journey towards recovery, you never know. However, I can say that it gave me great satisfaction each day. It gave me a sense of personal purpose, it gave me a place to be expressive in a very private way, it gave me a sense of mastery at the end of each week, reminding me that I could commit to this and keep it up. Perhaps that was the most notable thing for me – I could do this.
Following my recovery from anorexia and subsequent challenges with anxiety and depression, I have now left my design career and retrained doing a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, Leadership training and MHFA England Mental Health First Aid training. This study has introduced me to the science of what I experienced all those years ago. In 2014, a study was completed to explore the impact of taking photos as a pathway for individuals to explore what is meaningful to them. This approach, known as auto-photography, invited people to take a photo of something meaningful to them every day for a week, and at the end of the week to reflect on why that item was meaningful to them. This helped individuals to “see the world through someone else’s eyes” to recognize and enhance the meaning in their lives. Meaning in life is critical components in life satisfaction, professional success (Thompson, Coker, Krause & Henry, 2003; Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan & Lorentz, 2008; Steger, Oishi & Kashdan, 2009; Thomas, 2016; Martela & Steger, 2015), well-being and resilience.
Since I learnt about this research, I have met numerous people who have used this tool to improve their sense of wellbeing and others who have used it to support recovery from post-natal depression, OCD and many other mental health challenges. It is for this reason I am so passionate about working with Ollie, Peter and Cary to support this project and offer an opportunity for people to share their work and their journey. Wellbeing goes beyond the body – it is our motivation, our mental strength, our ability to engage with the world and navigate life with ease. I believe that photography can be a powerful way to enable us all to access this potential and I look forward to supporting you on this journey.