During times of difficulty and turmoil it can be hard to keep doing the things that are good for our health and easy to allow ourselves to slip into bad habits.
The constant bombardment of negativity that currently seems to be all around us can leave us feeling disheartened and wondering what is the point of it all?
This is the time when we need to be more vigilant about our mental health and take steps, even small steps, to keep ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally fit.
There is a wealth of research which tells us that exercise is good for our health in all areas.
Getting out regularly for a period of physical exercise can clear our headspace, help us shake off negativity and give us a new perspective on life.
For me, getting out into the park or woods, walking along a country lane or by the sea, with a camera in hand, provides a time of physical movement, mental clarity and emotional space that is such a valuable asset to have at this time.
And this is what photography offers as a support to our health and wellbeing.
A popular pursuit
Smartphones have made photography accessible to everyone and we can all document our everyday lives and share our treasured memories.
For many people, sharing their daily images on social media is something they look forward to doing, while family members and friends enjoy seeing them.
There is a danger, though, that photography has contributed to media overload, which can have a negative effect on mental health. The pressure to always have an updated image can be the opposite to what we want to gain from our ‘photo a day’ practice.
While this might seem to produce a negative effect of photography, real photography doesn’t require this element of stress and is in fact a calming and gentle pursuit.
This is the type of photography that I want to practise, the type which I believe supports us in wellbeing and mental health.
While there is actual scientific research to back up the claim that photography can support wellbeing in many areas of our lives, what I outline below are some ways in which I have found, from my own experience, that photography is an aid to my wellbeing and a great support for my mental and emotional health.
An aid to calming the mind
Photography allows us to take time away from everyday pursuits, to spend time with ourselves, to become more aware of our surroundings, and to be present in the moment. The process of creating an image slows you down, forces you to focus and concentrate on the task at hand and in this way photography can help to calm the mind and relieve the stress of everyday life.
I have discovered through my own photography practice that it has had a beneficial effect on my mental health. Stopping on a quiet winter’s evening to capture this image was a real lift for my spirits.
Three years ago, I was working full time in a stressful and responsible job and had virtually no time to myself.
When I made the decision to take early retirement, I knew I would need something to keep my mind active, but which wouldn’t involve the pressure that taking on a new area of study would bring.
I had always had a love of photography, and a chance conversation with a photography enthusiast provided that ‘lightbulb moment’ when I instantly knew the direction in which I needed to go, and so my serious journey into photography began.
I have spent the last there years trying to learn the fundamentals of photography so that I can create pleasing images, but more important to me is that taking the camera in my hand and walking around to find a scene where I might make some images, is calming and therapeutic and helps to ground me in the moment.
While the smartphone camera is great to allow us to take advantage of the unexpected photo opportunity, it is the camera I love to take with me when I need time to relax and to take some space for myself.
Earlier in the year I took a ‘staycation’ in a house by the sea on the west coast of Ireland. The weather was not great for photography – cloudy, wet, even windy at times with occasional sunshine – but despite this I got out every day with my camera and a different lens, and I spent some time walking by the sea, climbing hills overlooking the ocean, strolling along cliff tops, watching and listening to the crashing waves, feeling the wind on my face, even enjoying the rain at times. Having my camera and being constantly on the lookout for a photo opportunity helped me take notice of my new surroundings, to be aware of the varying weather patterns and changing light and the impact of the natural environment on the landscape in an area which is different to the area in which I live. During this time, photography and nature combined to provide a sense of wellbeing and allowed me to return to my everyday life refreshed, with an increased clarity and fresh perspective.
An aid to healing emotional wounds
During the last two years of global pandemic my camera, and indeed my phone camera, have been my constant companions, often offering me an escape from the constant bombardment of negativity.
During this time, I had a close family bereavement and found that I could not re-connect with photography for several weeks. Then one day I had my phone camera with me on a ‘memory walk’ by the sea and I found myself taking some images which allowed me to get in touch with my sadness and begin the healing process.
A path to mindfulness
Photography and mindfulness naturally complement each other.
Photography encourages you to be present in this moment, in these surroundings, and to be aware of how you are feeling.
On the Wild Atlantic Way, with the wind in my face and the crashing waves at my side, the feeling was one of exhilaration.
Bare trees and the crisp frosty mornings of winter evoke feelings of wonder and awe in the face of such beauty, and taking a photograph captures some of that feeling.
In my local park, when I see and hear the signs of spring begin to appear around me and I look for a way to best represent the season in an image, the feeling is one of calm and serenity.
An outlet for creativity
Photography focuses your mind on the creation of the image; on the composition, on the light, on the perspective you want. It encourages you to look at little details and also at the wider landscape. The act of creation awakens your creative self and allows you to be in that moment of creation, alert to what you are doing, fully absorbed in the task, in a state of ‘flow’.
A boost to self-esteem
While the act of creating an image is a very personal experience, allowing us to explore and express our vision, it also presents us with an opportunity to share what we have created with others, and in a way to share who we are.
We are expressing our own individuality through our images and in allowing others to see that self we are taking a risk, a leap of trust.
This act of sharing can help build our confidence in our own creative ability and increase our self-esteem, which is all hugely beneficial to our wellbeing.
When I shared my first photographs on my website I did so with a sense of trepidation. I was anxious about putting my photographs out into a world that is awash with images. I feared criticism and was anxious that my images were ‘not good enough’.
As I continued to learn and grow, I became more confident and could say, ‘This is me, this is how I interpret the world right now. My images are not perfect, but that’s ok, I’m still learning.’
This attitude gives a great sense of freedom and has increased my resilience against criticism, real or perceived. It has provided a creative outlet for my vision so that I no longer feel that what I do is for my eyes only.
I love to create images in my local park
A mental support in times of challenge
Last year, as we faced into a second lockdown in Ireland, I wondered how to keep motivated in circumstances that were even more difficult than those of the first lockdown.
Days were becoming darker and colder, the prevailing mood around me was more pessimistic and there was a general feeling of despondency in the air.
It became more important than ever to have a mental health outlet, something that could sustain me and help me to stay positive and focussed.
Since travel was limited to 5km from my home, photography opportunities were limited also and the prospect of capturing the same subjects I had captured so many times already did not seem such an exciting prospect.
It was then that I came across another promotional video for the new Landscape Mastery course. It seemed to be exactly what I needed: a new way of approaching landscape photography, techniques that could be practised close to home, a teacher whose easy going style I particularly liked, a course presented in easy to follow videos with a supportive group of fellow learners.
I signed up for the course, and from the first module it sparked my creativity, renewed my enthusiasm and brought me back to thinking like a photographer when out and about. For something so beneficial to body, mind and soul, it is well worth the nominal cost.
The first lesson on the Landscape Mastery course involved using layers to improve our landscape images, which means having foreground, middle and background interest.
For me, photography is a wonderful hobby, and yet it is more than just a hobby.
Photography is a vehicle through which I can practise mindfulness, it is a way to de-stress and de-clutter my mind, it is an outlet for my creativity and a way to express my individuality.
Photography has increased my self-awareness, allowed me to become more present in the moment and has been a self-esteem booster as I admire some of my creations.
Photography can be practised by all age groups, alone or with friends, and it doesn’t need any special equipment.
Any camera, even a phone camera, will get you started on this voyage of discovery. All you need is a decision to get out there and begin to take some images.
In the three years since I returned to photography, I have no doubt that this was the best decision I could have made to support my own mental health and wellbeing.
It could be just the thing you need.
"A photograph is a pause button of life."