Monday, May 4, 2020

Photography + Healing

In April, I was thrilled to receive my copy of PhotoEd Magazine in the mail. Not only was one of my photographs featured on their contents page, but my photography was featured on a two page spread in the magazine. This is such a special issue, as it deals with mental health and using photography to heal. I feel humbled and honoured to have my Stroke of Emotions project included.

On May 1st, PhotoEd released the digital version of the magazine. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover that an expanded version of my article was included...six pages! 

(note - when I checked in 2023, the online magazine had been removed) Here is my written article in full:

"Sometimes I cry so hard I think the tears will never stop. Sometimes I feel so tired I want to lay my head down and sleep forever. Sometimes I feel absolutely nothing and wonder if I will ever feel happy again." 

I wrote those words when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and vulnerable a few weeks after a devastating event in my family.

We all face challenges in life. Sometimes life throws you a hard ball and knocks you off your feet. Whether it's a health crisis, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or any other unpleasant surprise, we all have things we need to cope with that stretch us beyond what we think we can bear. And if you haven't face a serious problem yet, you will. Because life is like that.

My husband had a major stroke in 2017 and his health crisis became my health story as well. He had huge physical and mental challenges to overcome, and, as his life partner and sole caregiver, I experienced a roller coaster of feelings throughout his months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. During those terrible weeks immediately after my husband's stroke, I needed an outlet to deal with my emotions. I am an introvert at heart and am not one to talk about my innermost thoughts with other people.

My "go to" hobby is photography, but I had no time or inclination to head out with my camera after a long day at the hospital. However, my hobby did become a healing tool for me. In order to calm my mind and "voice" my thoughts, I decided to use my library of photographs to create a series of composited self portraits to portray my various feelings and emotions.

Many people have heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. My approach was to make a photo catalogue depicting my own stages and feelings. The process I used was to photograph myself in the privacy of my home, and then use images from my own library to create a world from my imagination. Putting myself into the image made it more real to me and helped me express my feelings visually.

There was one word uppermost in my mind in the early weeks of our crisis and I sat down at my computer one evening to try to put together an image that depicted that feeling. I searched through my photographs for things that shouted "devastation" to me. I decided to use an image of a clear cut forest as the base. I purchased a "grain sack" type of dress at our local second hand clothing store and got to work taking self portraits in my bedroom.

My first composition was not pretty but it helped me and throughout the months to come I continued the process to create 14 images, refining things along the way. They were all based on words that were personal to me and my experience - "overwhelm", "denial", "depression", "support", and "hope" to name a few. Ranging from devastation to rejuvenation, they told my story and visually described my healing journey.

This project helped me in different ways. First, I acknowledged my own feelings and I had a way to express them without having to put them into words. Second, concentrating on learning the new-to-me skill of using layers and masks forced me to concentrate on something other than feeling completely helpless and overwhelmed.

Wikipedia describes journal therapy as a writing therapy focusing on the writer's internal experiences, thoughts and feelings. Somehow, using self portraits to express myself seemed easier than trying to put my feelings into words. In my experience, pictorialization was therapeutic and was much more meaningful for me because I am a visual person.

During the creation of these images, a project that I called "Stroke of Emotions", I never intended to show them to anyone else. They were personal and private, a visual representation of my own emotional journey. However, the world works in mysterious ways and when I was wrapping up my series a call came out for submissions to an exhibit called Picturing Health, developed in partnership between ViewPoint Gallery in Halifax and the Robert Pope Foundation. The project offered an opportunity to use photographic imagery to explore the complex relationship between wellness and creativity.

It seemed a sign to me that I was meant to share my project and my experience. In a giant leap of faith, I submitted the maximum images allowed, and all five were selected for inclusion in the exhibit.

At the same time, I was contacted by our local library and was asked to mount a solo exhibit. I believed so strongly in the power of healing through art that I decided to continue with the theme. Two of my favourite things to photograph are birds and trees, so I created a new series of composited images called "Roots + Wings". I believe trees represent growth and strength, with roots to ground us in our traditions. I see birds in flight as symbols of freedom, with the power of dreams and life renewed. The images I created portrayed the stages of emotional healing, from tragedy through restoration. This time, I wrote verse to correspond with each image.

Dealing with devastating challenges is life's equalizer. Terrible loss does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, or any other label. No matter who we are, the healing process is not an easy road, nor is it a quick straight line. It's a pilgrimage, sometimes rewarding, and often difficult. I have had times of terrible grief and feelings of complete helplessness, combined with a sense of guilt that I should be a better person. There have been moments when my sadness has been so great that it was a physical thing, squeezing my heart and stealing my breath. I have had periods of self doubt so overwhelming that I didn't think I could cope with the future. I didn't think I would have the patience or ability to do what I needed to do, or be who I needed to be.

Through it all, I have used photography to help me cope.

I do still create self portraits from time to time, but I have also trained myself to search for "real life" scenes that speak to my soul. A solo robin singing on a bare tree limb becomes "Song of Joy". An ant crawling up a flower stem says "Journey". A boat hull with a red stripe and black lines dripping with rain sparks a reference to anger and sadness. Layers of sand represents the sands of time and a complex life. The possibilities and photo opportunities are endless, even for a person like me whose only photographic excursion is a daily dog walk.

I continue to create images inspired by emotions, but it is no longer my sole focus. I still feel lost and afraid at times, and I probably always will. But I am learning that other people feel that way too. I am also learning that sharing is one of the most important tools in healing. As a visual person, I share through my photography.

Sara Harley
PhotoEd Magazine
Spring/Summer 2020
Mental Health, Photography + Healing

1 comment:

  1. Sara, It was an article that wasn't an "easy read" for me. I read slowly... re-read, thought, imagined, read on, stopped again... To say it's beautifully done just is too simple... but it is beautifully done.


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