Creating a Visual Language of Depression

Reading time | 5 mins

In my experience, one of the hardest parts of depression is talking about it.

This affects everyone involved — the people who are struggling with depression, their loved ones making an effort to support them, and the medical experts who are there to provide vital services.

One thing I have learned over the years, though, is that it all comes down to communication.

The problem (and what struck me most in my own journey with depression) is that we’re all so focused on expressing or getting the message across using only one part of our language.

Our conversations focus on the words — speaking it into existence.

But what if there was another way?

Eight years ago, when I was at the hardest stage of my depression without any way to start talking about what I was going through or understanding what it even was, I really needed another way of communicating what I was feeling. I started to take photos and tell stories with them to begin the conversation with myself and open up to others about depression and anxiety.

Somehow I stumbled upon photography as a therapeutic outlet and created my own set of techniques, which later became The One Project.

There are so many reasons why mental health issues are difficult to talk about. This includes the stigma and how vulnerable the experiences can be — let alone the severity of some of the symptoms on your mind and body where you feel like words don’t properly express what you’re going through. You may not even fully understand what you’re going through.

What if a photograph could tell that story?

For almost a decade now, we at The One Project have been working to help teach people about photography and how it can help you start your process of speaking about mental health.

Imagine the new questions, insights, and progress that we’ll make by expanding our language into other mediums.

We’re starting to see patterns and common visual metaphors that people use to help express what they’re going through. So, we asked members of The One Project to share stories that visualize and help represent what depression is like for them.

In mental illness, the fog can be like a cage without a key.

Making art has always been something special to me since I was a little girl. Now art has helped me heal. Trena Wall

Many people often use fences, cages, or other types of barriers within their photos and the words of their stories. Trena utilized two metaphors in this photo: a cage and fog. Fog is also a very common representation of depression and its symptoms.

Both for myself and other members, it can sometimes help to express the mental fog, the opaque unknown (and sometimes scary or eerie) feeling, or the feelings of being trapped within it — not knowing when it will end. Someone unfamiliar with depression may be able to relate better through that shared experience of fog.

As a U.S. Army Veteran, I have encountered my fair share of depression. Getting help made me feel exposed and out in the open. Little did I know that although I felt exposed (my roots), my self-confidence was growing and taking a stronger hold on my overall look at life just like this beautiful birch tree alone in a forest of oak trees. It’s exposed, but the roots are strong and go deep. Its bark is beautiful and sheds the darkness as it grows. I took this photo shortly after my journey out of the dark. I am now using photography as self-care and am currently researching how to make a class for this area. Amanda

As Amanda has done, we have seen many photos of bare trees after the leaves have all fallen used to represent what it’s like to be depressed. They are exposed, vulnerable, without protection, and cold. In a way, we can often use different pieces of nature to help act as a stand-in for us in what is essentially a portrait. Also, it can be used as a reminder of your resilience, about the strong roots of the tree and its long life despite the adversity it faces.

This is how I see my life at the moment. Things are not clear and every time I look ahead it’s just the same. It’s never fully dark but never fully defined. It feels fast but in slow motion… This is a new feeling that has taken me over this year for many reasons.@phototherapy_jeni

This story resonated with a lot of our community very quickly with statements like “This photo speaks volumes to me” and “Speechless! This pic says a lot of things to me about what I’m going through right now.”

We’ve seen a pattern of using a mix of blurred movements in photos being used for both depression and anxiety, as it helps to convey the overwhelmed, skewed perspective and confusion that comes with it. It can make it so much more difficult to not only perceive the world around you, but also your own experience within it. It’s hard to even see what’s going on in your immediate vicinity.

Setting boundaries

I chose this picture because I’m seeking peace and this picture represents a peaceful journey.

To me seeking inner peace is setting boundaries. By not being a doormat and not being a witch. A lot of my depression stems from that. Being able to communicate and saying what you mean by not doubting yourself too. Overanalyzing is dangerous. I like where I’m going. It’s taking a lot of work to get where I need to go. Self-care is essential.


Nature is a common theme used within stories. It’s likely many people find stress-relief from immersing in beautiful natural landscapes. In contrast to how Amanda used a tree to help represent her struggles, Leandra could use this landscape scene to express her goal — what it is that she’s working towards: inner peace.

We see people often using symbols like calm waters, bright blue skies, and beautiful sunsets or sunrises to represent times when they’re doing well (or the expression of working toward it and holding hope). The opposite often holds true for representing the struggles.

The takeaway

These are just a few examples of powerful visual metaphors and patterns that are emerging as we build a new language for mental health with the healing power of photography. Our mission at The One Project is to help educate people about photography as a therapeutic outlet and build a library of stories like these to build a better understanding of issues like depression and anxiety.

I invite you to tell your story, whatever it is.

For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider.


DEPR-US-NP-00057 MARCH 2019