— “What It Looks Like” is an ongoing photographic exploration into the stories of individuals who have experienced depression, anxiety, grief, mood disorders, or any other mental illness. This project aims to share awareness, end stigma, and create dialogue and open communication around mental health. Instead of asking what it feels like, I’ve asked each person ‘What does it look like?’ —
I can choose where my dreams go, I can choose what I experience
I met Grace for the first time in a hundred year old barn on Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island this July. But even though it was the first time we’d shared a physical space, I felt like we’d already understood a lot about each other over the course of the previous year.
Grace is a talented photographer who has started an impressive body of work that explores her emotional connection to the spaces that she is in as well as creating work that is deeply personal and evokes strong emotional responses from the viewer. I first became aware of her work last summer and we quickly started a budding friendship.
I saw a lot of myself in Grace, in her struggles and in her growth. I was watching through her every post that she was growing not only in her technical skill but also developing her own strength in herself, in her health and her ability to connect that to her work. Being a photographer can be an emotional role, being a self-portrait photographer can be especially rewarding but also revealing and it has the ability to really deepen your connection with your own emotions.
We talked about our shared experiences, with depression, bullying, anxiety and how it can manifest itself in different ways. I tried my best over the months to provide a bit of a shoulder, a friend who’d walked a similar path if she needed. When I came up with the idea for What It Looks Like, I knew Grace would be the first person I’d ask. Her bravery and openness was something that I wanted to share with other people.
What It Looks Like – Depression
When we sat on the grass in the summer heat, emotions were already tugging at both Grace and I. I’d just spoken at the conference we were at and my nerves were a bit shaky and I think Grace was a bit anxious about the experience as a whole. But our conversation seemed to flow rather easily into difficult topics. When I asked about depression and what it looks like, Grace replied with:
“It’s like that black cloud analogy. It’s just this heavy black cloud that is just forming above me and follows me everywhere. It doesn’t go away it just sits there and I have to wait for it to disappear“
The image that came to mind was familiar and it was a very visual one, an image of someone on a familiar climb up a ladder into a darker place. I wanted to create something that still felt hopeful, that maybe showed her coming back down the ladder, that the darkness was over for a time again. That no matter how difficult it may feel when that cloud is hanging overhead, there’s always a way to come back down to the ground, to leave that place.
What It Looks Like – Feeling Better
The conversation lasted quite some time, both of us sharing our experiences and visuals and when I asked about what it looks like when things feel better, Grace’s eyes lit up and there was a smile. Swimming just makes me feel free, it’s my happy place, I can just be in the water and it feels like I’m floating. I’m a lucid dreamer as well, so dreaming and sleeping gives me relief because I can choose where my dreams go, I can choose what I experience”.
I knew that I wanted to create an image that reflected both the water and the sense that dreaming was a chance to be carried away toward something better, something that felt a bit more free. On one of our last days in Prince Edward Island Grace and her mom, Brenda, drove out to a beautiful red sandy beach and worked on some images. The sky was beautiful and the colours all seemed stand out in such a way that I felt very calm myself. I knew it was the right place for Grace’s “Feeling Better” shoot.
I wanted to show the connection between the water and the feeling of freedom that Grace said she felt while dreaming. The visual of her being carried gently along the water’s edge by a happier cloud, a softer one this time seemed to be the perfect balance between the darker cloud of the other image. After editing the image I felt a lump in my throat, I felt like I connected to it more than I expected. I saw in her expression and in her body language and in the memories of that moment the same sense of calm that I feel when I’m outside in nature, that sense of relief and safety.
After the photoshoots and conversations I felt very much that hearing Grace’s story, watching her work and getting to know her as a friend really helped me to understand so much more about myself and about her and I feel that it was a moment that I won’t forget. How she explained what her depression and anxiety looks like felt so similar but different in a way that still opened my eyes and helped me to understand what she was experiencing.