Image Credit: Shannen Woods

Depression Self-Portraits: Changing How We See Depression

Reading time | 8 min

Previously, I shared a collection of my own depression self-portraits and reflected on how your perception of yourself and the world around you is an important part of working through these issues.

The stories that we tell ourselves are powerful, even more so when they are shared with others.

That’s why I asked members of The One Project community to share their own self-portraits to help show the common threads and clear differences in how we all experience and cope with depression and anxiety — including the impact of using photography to visualize and tell your story to help yourself and others.

As a community, we encourage our members (and anyone living with mental health issues) to be raw and honest about the realities of their experience, while also understanding and respecting where you’re at in your journey.

There is so much power in expressing yourself creatively, and as I and other One Project members have experienced, a whole world of connection is opened up when you add non-verbal elements like photography to the conversation.

The more we talk about all aspects of living with a condition like depression — the good, the bad, what works for you, what doesn’t, the stigma and the progress — the closer we can get to making it better for everyone.

Below you’ll find seven stories from members of our community.

I’ll let our member stories speak for themselves.

I Thought I Was Unbreakable by Peter Engberg

During the last two years, I’ve passed the fallen tree several times. A full-grown spruce that is 60 to 70 years old and has reached 20 meters in height and weighs more than 1,000 kilos can break in a second. A large and robust tree can, at the same time, be so fragile. Suddenly, the wind becomes overpowering, and the spruce loses the battle. The spruce that grows in the middle of the forest surrounded by many other spruces.

How is it possible? Why this tree?

After last year’s storm, Central Park in Helsinki is full of fallen trees. Some are removed and some still lie in the forest. Of all trees, this spruce has reminded me of the human vulnerability.

More specifically, the tree has reminded me of my vulnerability. Before I became seriously ill, I could not imagine that I might someday be mentally injured. I could not understand that I am suffering from an illness so much that it dominates my life. I believe that this is why I also, for so many years, fought against the thought. I haven’t given myself the time to suffer. It’s just not possible, a strong-built man like me, to give in to the will of my mind and to the problem that my mind creates.

Giving in to the mind is a sign of weakness. I can’t be weak. During my upbringing, I was always reminded not to be weak. It’s not possible to be weak.

I went through big emotions when I made this picture. The photo touches my inner self, my sensitivity — which could be my resource. I made my sensitivity my worst enemy as a teenager. I tried to hide my feelings in all situations. In that, I became a master. A master so skilled that in the end, I couldn’t hear nor reach my mind. I become a stranger to me.

Perhaps the meaning of illness is this. Our mind protects us, and my mind finally took power over me and stopped me. It gave me a chance. An opportunity to learn to listen to my feelings and cure me.

I was an unknown person to myself. With photography, I can build my own identity, one that is visible and understandable for me. I can reveal myself in a way that feels acceptable. I can alienate myself from a male stereotype (whatever that is). You can’t repair the tree, but you can fix yourself. Rebuilding who you are will require a great deal of willpower.

The picture also illustrates the uniqueness of human beings. I can cure myself. I have the gift, and opportunity do so. I’m privileged, and I’m on my way towards a better life. The life of the beautiful spruce ends the minute it breaks.

Publishing this text is scary. I will openly say: I’m sick, weak, and very vulnerable.

At the same time, I’m happy when I dare to do it at this point.

Play Is Not Fun by Melanie Hood

In my mind I’m always recreating the playhouse where I was sexually abused at the age of 5. Maybe one day, I can escape.

Multitudes by K. M. M. Henry

stressed on holidays –

walk, talk, draw, snap, stretch, drink, eat –

sleeping in past noon

Mind Lost by Shayla Lewis

3:10 a.m. Just woke up and can’t go back to sleep. My mind starts racing with thoughts and conversations from my past. Then I start thinking about the day ahead and about everything that needs to be done. Guess I’ll go start coffee and take these meds while I’m at it. I down at least three cups of coffee and take a shower. By now my kids are awake... then the noise, whining, and bickering begin. My head starts pounding and I am getting angry. “Oh my God I can’t wait for them to leave!!!” I yell as I’m frantically rushing to get them out the door so I can be alone. They’re gone finally! Now it’s just me and my thoughts.

My mind is full of heartbreak, disappointments, and broken dreams. Then I start thinking about lost loves and missed opportunities. I fail at everything, I’m alone and nobody wants me. I’m so ugly and fat. I want to cry, scream, and disappear. I’m a horrible mother, Why can’t I just be happy? I can’t take it... I need to do something, now!

So I do the only other thing that gives me relief: I eat. I go in the kitchen and raid the cabinet and fridge. Now I’m too full. I can’t keep all this food down or I’ll gain more weight! So I go to the bathroom and purge. I feel relieved the food is out of my body but now my insides are burning. My health is failing from 20 years of being bulimic. I’m exhausted and bored. I wish I felt like doing something but I have no interest or motivation. Maybe I’ll watch TV, but my thoughts are so loud that I can’t focus. I turn it off and it’s pure silence again.

My mind starts to wander.

It’s almost time for the kids to come home. I hate this part of the day because when they come home the chaos begins. I have no patience. The house is a mess. Let me at least do the dishes and vacuum so it looks like I did something today other than wallow in self-pity.

Now the kids are home and so is the noise. I wish I wasn’t a mother... it’s too hard... everything is too hard! I’m tired of being broke and alone. I hate my life!

I need to get out of here. I go outside to smoke a cigarette. As I’m taking drag after drag I think to myself, Why am I here? Why can’t I just die? I’m on the verge of tears. I have to pull it together. I go back inside and make dinner. Things are calm now. Thank god it’s almost bedtime. I play with my kids and watch a little TV with them until they fall asleep.

Now it’s just me alone with my thoughts.

I’m glad the day is over but I’m not looking forward to tomorrow because I live the same empty and miserable day every day.

Vol. 2 - Once Bitten Twice Shy by Jelani Woods of 4thePPL

I don’t know what to say anymore.

I wouldn’t call it sad, I wouldn’t call it mad.

Somethings just not right.

—Bazzi

I think this is the most nervous I’ve ever felt when taking a photo. A bunch of things I don’t do happened at once: intentionally choosing harsh shadows, retouching to enhance the darker skin around the eyes instead of hiding them, and the obvious part — posing for a self-portrait. To me this face is more real than you know. To me this face is what I see when I drag myself out of bed. The previous days’ success forgotten as I observe the bags under my eyes. My name is Jelani, this is the face of my depression.

Architectural Journeys by Shannen Woods

Within the last few months, I started taking images while waiting at the bus stop to help me deal with my mental health issues. This image represents how it feels most days when you are waiting for the depression or anxiety to trigger. Even if it doesn’t come, it’s that feeling of waiting.

Be Sunshine on a Cloudy Day by Liz Michels

My name is Liz Michels. I’m 29 years old and I deal with many challenges in life, but instead of giving up I simply live by the simple motto that you have to create your own sunshine. Sure, I have some cloudy days, and I take that time to focus and recharge. Even though I may have those cloudy days I always bring back my sunshine. My goal in life is to enjoy the littlest things and have a good attitude. As Rihanna says, “Turn your face towards the sun and the shadow will fall behind you.” My face, no matter how cloudy the days get, will always be facing the light. My goal in life is to help people create their own sunshine.

Share your story

We all have a story to tell — and while you may relate to one of these stories or possibly all of them, sharing your voice and unique experiences can help change the picture and conversation around mental health.

If you’re interested in using photography to help cope with depression symptoms, give it a shot. Self-portraits are the most intense and difficult to work with, so feel free to start out with any photograph, whatever catches your attention or speaks to you for what you want to say. If it’s the first time you’ve spoken about it, you don’t need to even include words — just allow the photo to speak for you.

I’d love to hear your story.

If you’re living with depression or anxiety, or working to better understand these issues to help support a loved one, I encourage you to share a story in our private community.

DEPR-US-NP-00032  AUGUST 2018