Photography as Therapy
Updated: Apr 9
Can photography be a form of therapy? Mindfulness, Shinrin-Yoku and photography
Throughout my life I have suffered from anxiety and bouts of depression, to the point that a good chunk of my teenage years were spent in isolation. I had secret dreams of becoming a video game designer but my grades weren't great and I didn't have the means to travel to courses in the city. So instead I followed one of my other passions, film making, which was taught at my local college.
Turned out I got into this profession at a great time as advances in camera technology made filmmaking more accessible than ever, With the rise of DSLR cameras as a tool for filmmaking I naturally made a progression into photography. Around my college years I began walking almost everywhere as a means to keep fit, this took me from the confines of my room to the great outdoors and the more I walked the more clearheaded I felt.
Over the years I began training to an extreme level. At my peak I was training 2 different martial arts a week, walking 5-7 miles a day and regularly doing roughly 500 press ups, squats and crunches. I lost a lot of weight and got pretty strong, however I also predictably picked up multiple injuries. This all started to come to a head, for instance I was asked to choreograph and star in a fight scene in a short film, however on this day I had trained excessively and during a staged throw my left knee popped out. This still happens occasionally.
Stubbornly I persisted with my ways until I happened upon a turning point which came during a stag weekend in Spain in which my hip, which I had always had some trouble with began throbbing with unbearable and un-ignorable pain.
So two days later I desperately began to look at alternative forms of exercise and discovered yoga. I mean I had heard of it but honestly I always thought it was some hokey pseudo form of exorcise for hippies. So searching YouTube I found a channel called Yoga with Adriene and never one to do things by half I thought I'd jump right into a 30 Day Yoga challenge and it is with no exaggeration that within 2 weeks I had been converted. The proof was in the pudding, my back and hip pain which I was plagued with for months almost entirely cleared up, It was physically liberating.
But what I was not expecting was the interwoven mindfulness techniques. As I began my 30 Day journey I had a high resistance to this, The idea of mantras and being present honestly took me a little longer than 30 days to come around to. But over the months I began to realise that mentally this gave me a similar sensation to walking... better in fact. As I lowered my defenses which were very much based in a 'me man, yoga not manly, mindfulness stupid' way of thinking I began to partake in these aspects of the practice and to me the effects were self evident.
But ever trying to base what I do according to scientific principle I had to find out if there was a reason why I felt so elated after practice and it turns out that there was scientific studies to back both the physical and mindful benefits of yoga. The research still has a way to go but is very promising and as far as anecdotal evidence I am obviously an advocate.
Through my research I also decided to look into meditation and again the science appeared to support the claims and so I found myself adding this to my new routine and I had one of my most powerful experiences with this. It took weeks of short 10 minute practices but during one guided meditation I had to imagine energy flowing through my body and out through my head and though I don't think I was exuding actual energy like some kind of anime character my head and arms began to tingle, my nose tickled me and after meditation I felt high. In fact my sister thought I was high.
Both yoga and meditation involve breathing techniques and learning to be present, this means to experience each passing moment without hang ups on past mistakes or worries about the future. It's giving yourself permission to just be content for a short period of the day.
Eventually I began applying these mindfulness and breathing techniques to my walks and conveniently my interest in photography had grown into a passion by this point too. Mindfulness, walking and photography had coalesced into activity that gave me physical, mental and artistic release.
Over the last two or three years a new trend has also began to emerge and that was the concept of Shinrin-Yoku translated from Japanese to forest bathing. This is the practice of spending time in a forest as a form of release. Shinrin-Yoku is very similar to mindfulness but of course the location adds an extra element, it is a re-connection the the natural world, experiencing the natural sites, sounds, textures and smells of the natural world instills a sense of inner peace. Further more scientific data has shown that forest bathing lowers blood pressure and stress levels and is compatible with other activities such as meditation and thai chi. Dr Qing Li is one of the formost researchers and advocates of forest bathing, check the bibliography below to see a facinating interview with the man himself.
As someone who spends most of my time in the great British countryside I feel as though I already reap many of the rewards of forest bathing but I do find certain locations can have profoundly differing effects on the way I feel. For example I find myself often engaged in deeply pensive thoughts around great bodies of water. Mountains are a place awe and optimism, the countryside is a place of comfort and the forest brings me deeper feeling of connection to the natural world,
So how does photography tie into all of this? Well photography as a form of therapy is nothing new but I feel that the use of photography as a therapeutic pursuit is an often overlooked but deeply rewarding exorcise. As an aside I must also say that there is a difference between something being administered as therapy and a therapeutic pursuit that one chooses to undertake without necessarily seeking medical aid. But essentially both offer a way for us to express and explore our feelings through the art of photography. What's more photography is perhaps the most accessible form of art in the world.
As I state in the video the convergence of all of these practices isn't to favor one over the other and so one shouldn't be deterred by the idea that they are not the worlds best photographer. These exorcises can be practiced with as much or as little intent as you wish. My personal experience changes depending on my circumstance and can interchangeably weave between both a conscious pursuit and an almost sub-conscious practice.
To expound upon this as a freelance photographer I'll often have a heavy work load to contend with and of course all of this is photography or video based. I think I would grow to hate photography and video if I took the same intensity into everything that I did. Instead during these stressful times I find that my photography becomes a rhythmic exorcise, similar to the breathing exorcises in mindfulness. A touchstone to refocus my mind on the present, Conversely when I'm already in a pretty chill state I may take the time to plan and look for certain shots that may be a bit more challenging.
There is no wrong approach but one of the main benefits of mindfulness is taking stock of how you are feeling within each moment. Listening to your body will often guide you to what is best for you.
Photography and video are in essence a very pure form of mindfulness they are literally about capturing moments. To anyone who has read this far down I encourage you to try some simple mindfulness exorcises from the video. You don't need a camera to practice mindfulness but I encourage you try adding the camera as a way to add expression to your practices. For myself it has given me an overwhelming love of the natural world, A way to centre myself and way to express myself artistically. It is an incredibly well rounded therapeutic pursuit with both physical and mental health benefits, all you need is a camera and an open mind.
NHS - MINDFULNESS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-...
The National Trust - Shinrin-Yoku: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-...
Dr Qing Li: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12CCjoixpkA
NHS - Anxiety: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-...
NHS - Clinical Depression: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/clinica...
Yoga studies article - VOX - https://www.vox.com/2015/7/22/9012075/yoga-health-benefits-exercise-science
Inspiration: Book - The Walkers Guide to Outdoors Clues & Signs by Tristan Gooley
Charity: The Wildlife Trust: www.wildlifetrusts.org
Remember to keep safe and follow the country code.