“With Photography There Is No Stigma”: Turning a Lens on the Challenges of Mental Illness

broken lightbulbs

One of the most challenging aspects of living with mental illness is the isolation — of feeling unwilling or unworthy of engaging with life, and with people. Photographer and editor Danielle Hark started Broken Light Collective to counteract that loneliness and create a space where people could connect and heal over a shared art: photography. Here, we share the stories of eight Broken Light contributors, and talk to Danielle about mental illness, therapeutic photography, and the importance of sharing our art and stories.

All images and stories below are courtesy of Broken Light Collective.

Lights Out,” [the image at the top of this piece], was inspired by the work of Broken Light Collective… It reminds me that as much as I try to be a light for other people, it’s not always possible when there are things I need to take care of within myself first.

— Diana Colapietro, a 21-year-old woman from New York, New York who struggles with anxiety and panic attacks.

storm clouds

I often feel that my emotions are a storm brewing that I need to navigate through. Sometimes I abandon myself and try to escape the emotional pain through destructive acts. I have been much more healthy in the past year since my psychiatric hospitalization and use photography as a way to express myself. This shot speaks for itself on those dark days of utter abandonment with a storm coming in.
— “Stormy Abandonment” by CJ, diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago.

Danielle Hark is a freelance magazine and book photo editor, professional photographer, and mental health/wellness writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, Dr. Oz’s YouBeauty, Psychology Today, Beliefnet, and our own Daily PostShe founded Broken Light Collective in 2012 both as a personal therapeutic site and to encourage others impacted by mental illness to share their images and support one another.

How do people find you?

Through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. From blog links and tweets from contributors and readers. Through my wellness articles on sites like The Huffington Post or Dr. Oz’s YouBeauty. But most of all, through word of mouth. Many people say that they were told to submit to Broken Light Collective by a friend or family member who had found benefit from contributing to or reading the site.

broken light 2

I found this head of a Barbie doll in a lush local park. There are plenty of more beautiful subjects in the park, but seeing this image amongst the lushness made me return home to collect my camera.

Her blue eyes and red lips showed the remembrance of better days gone by. Along with the promise that things do get worse and things do get better. Weather your storms.
— “Even Barbie Can Have a Bad Day” by Jim, who has struggled with depression for much of his life.

Are there particular images that provoke an especially strong response from your readership?

I think it is more about the types of images rather than one specific image. People are moved by nature imagery, abandoned places, and conceptual self-portraits… images that convey darkness and struggle, but also images of hope shining through.

rays of light

I took this picture several years back. At the time it signified hope for me; hope that God was going to give me a brighter future. I was at a very stressful time in my life, that I feel triggered my mental illness acute episode.

That darkest valley was the deepest darkest delusional dimension of the mind where one loses their self as a rational human being and has a total loss of reality. Yet in the darkness, despair, and confusion, at a level deeper than my mind and embedded into my soul was my only light, a light of love; the warmth of God who kept me safe when I was exposed to the mentally ill hell of the mind. Realizing that God was always there with me no matter how lost I was was the hope that I was looking for.
— “Hope” by Cheerios, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia at age 41.

Have you ever declined to publish a submission?

We like to post as many submitted photos as possible, but some images get flagged because they might be triggering to other people who are struggling. We have a firm policy against posting images that are overtly violent in nature or triggering, including scars and weapons, and have mental health professionals who are consulted when there is a question about the appropriateness of an image.

woman at a window

Usually the depression is worse during the winter months but this year I upped my vitamin D and had a much better season. However, there were a few days I literally thought I was going to die if I didn’t see some green soon. We had a lot of late storms that just hit me right in the gut. I felt trapped and a bit mental for awhile. Every new late winter storm was like a bullet to my brain. I wanted to capture that desperation in the image.
— “Winter’s Last Tantrum” by Carrie Hilgert, a photographer and portrait artist diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

Is there something unique about photography’s ability to help people process and learn to cope with mental illness (say, as opposed to writing)?

Photography is a tool that anyone can instantly tap into, whether you think of yourself as an artist or not. Looking through the lens helps you be in your surroundings and completely in the moment, instead of worrying about the past or future. In that way, photography is a mindfulness practice, a form of active meditation.

Photography also allows people to express themselves when they have trouble expressing themselves with words. Sometimes when we’re going through challenging times it can be hard to access words to explain what’s going on inside, or stigma holds us back from using words like depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis. With photography there is no stigma, no labels or diagnosis — just the visualization of a thought or feeling, exactly as they are in that moment, without thought or judgment.

raindrops on a window

Most people will take rainstorms as something gloomy or dreadful but you can get something beautiful out of it if you just look at it from the right angle.
— “Beauty in the Gloom” by Sam, a teen with severe attention deficit disorder.

You’ve had your own mental health challenges; how has photography helped you?

I honestly believe that photography has not only helped me through the struggles, it has helped save my life on more than one occasion. There have been moments when the whole world suddenly went dark and I started to lose touch with reality, and somehow taking photos helped to bring me back into my body and my surroundings, out of the swirling vortex of panic and dark thoughts, and into the present moment.

I then was able to use the photos I had taken to begin a dialogue with my therapist, who also happened to enjoy photography. Showing her a photo I had taken or one that I was feeling connected to in that moment said more about my mood than my words. Viewing photos from others who are struggling with mental health challenges has also been therapeutic.

woman self portrail

As someone that struggles with various forms of mental illness, I have learned that I can’t bow down to my feelings and thoughts. Nor can I completely shut down, because I need access to my emotions. What I can do is become my own master juggling act; balancing extremes, knowing what to listen to and what to throw away. I keep a little bit of my insanity beautifully nestled within each artwork I create. It is the one place where my mental illness becomes a blessing, instead of a curse.
— “What They Don’t See” by Jaeda DeWalt, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, anxiety, and ADHD brought on in part by childhood sexual trauma.

Can you articulate the ways that depression and/or anxiety impact your photography — whether your chosen subject matter, your point of view, or any other aspect of the craft?

My challenges do not define me, but they are a part of me and they contribute to who I am and how I see the world. You can often tell my mood state just by looking at an image I took during that period of time; of course something I took during a sleepless night of insomnia and hypomania is going to look different than something I took while out with my daughter at the park. They both represent me, but different parts of me.

There was a long period of time when I was experiencing serious depression and anxiety and almost all of my images were taken from above shooting down on people and things. Looking back, I think that spoke to my feelings of disconnect from people and the world. I felt like I was alone in my struggles and that no one could understand. Like I was an alien, on the outside looking in at a world of happiness, just out of reach. I think all of these feelings may have come into play on a subconscious level, but for me it just felt right in that moment.

children at playThis photo captures some of the neighborhood kids decorating a princess tiara, and enjoying freeze pops. It was a sweet moment, so I snuck over with my phone camera to capture it as unobtrusively as possible. I think the unconventional angle captures the joy, but also gives it a feeling of distance, which was how I was feeling at that moment. Depression always makes me feel like I am on the outside looking in. Like the world is a giant snow globe — filled with scenes of laughter and happiness – that I can see but can’t engage with.
— “On the Outside Looking In” by Broken Light founder Danielle Hark.

Talk to us about the community that’s grown up around BLC.

Broken Light Collective has also been profiled by the New York Times.

A site I started in bed in 2012 now has over 40,000 contributors and readers from 181 countries. We have regular contributors who have been on this journey with us for years, and new people joining all the time.

It is such a supportive group. At times, I’m been moved to tears by the comments, even more so than the posts, because it shows that people are connecting with other people’s experiences and that it is having an impact on their lives. That is what it is all about — connecting and then carrying that feeling of connection with you long after you click off the site.

rusty metal door

I took this shot from inside of a jail cell in South Africa. I don’t need to explain the symbolism here, we all know what it’s like to be trapped inside our minds.”
— “Trapped Inside Our Minds” by Hannah, who attempted suicide at age 17.

What’s next?

One of the things we have been wanting to do is to form offline BLC peer support groups where people who are struggling with mental health challenges can come together and take pictures or share pictures from their week. We’ve already had one contributor form a therapeutic photography peer group at his college.

We’ve had several live gallery exhibits, including a seven-week exhibit at the nonprofit Fountain House Gallery in NYC. We also have done pop-up galleries and speaking engagements from New York to Maryland to Texas. The talks travel through the world of Broken Light Collective and therapeutic photography, adding tips and examples of how people can use photography therapeutically in their own lives, even with their cell phone cameras. They seem to especially connect with students, some of whom have become a part of the community afterwards. We are looking to expand in that direction and do more galleries and talks at colleges and high school.

I mostly run the site and nonprofit myself, while also being mom to a 5-year-old and 7-month-old, and a writer/photographer/photo editor/life coach. But Broken Light Collective is my passion, so I do what I can when I can, and make it work.

You can find more from Broken Light Collective on Facebook and Twitter, at both @BrokenLighCo and @DanielleHark.