For me, photography is inextricably linked with mental health. In 2009 I had a severe mental burnout. I went to see friend who is a psychologist so she could recommend a mental health professional for me. During our conversation I had what I imagine to be an epiphany. I realised that what was missing in my life was the creative outlet given to me by photography.
I began taking photos when I was around eight years old. I had a little plastic camera but I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the camera (probably a Diana or a Holga) or the film it used (I think it was 120, although I know it was not 35mm). The oldest photo that I still have is from around my tenth birthday. It’s a photo of four of my school friends, all girls, looking out to sea.
When I was around seventeen, I bought and electronic point-and-shoot and (again I don’t remember the brand but this was 35mm) I have lots of (not very good) photos that I took with that camera. I seem to remember that I took it everywhere with me, except when we went to the pub. When I was around twenty-two, I bought a better quality point-and-shoot and my father offered to swap his Canon FP for this new camera. This new way of taking photos, with a light meter, was a revelation. It made me more discerning and slowed down the image taking process.
In 1992 I planned a trip around France, perhaps planned is a little too grand to describe what I did. I sold both the motorcycles that I owned, I bought a Land Rover (ex military), and a new Canon EOS 600 with a small and medium zoom lens. I still took my manual Canon everywhere, typically loaded with black and white film, the EOS would be loaded with colour or slide film.
In 1994 I moved to Spain. The first week, I took photos as I had been taking in the UK, somewhere between one and two rolls per week, mainly experiments. When I went to pick them up I discovered that developing prints was horrendously expensive. So I limited my photography to trips to the mountain with my dog or festivals in the local area, and even then trying to limit my usage to one or two rolls of 36 images (37 on the old Canon because it was a manual load).
In 2004 I bought a little Konica Minolta digital camera. I loved it! It was only 3.1 megapixels but it was compact, it had a physical zoom and the lens was in the corner which meant I could carry it in my hand with the lens poking out and take candid shots.
Then 2009 happened. The day after I saw my psychologist friend I went out and bought a Canon EOS 450D. Now I had to learn how to develop RAW files. This brought another level of complexity, but also a greater level of interest because now I had more control over what I wanted to produce. The worst thing about this camera, in my opinion, was the noise. I could hardly raise the ISO before getting awful noise on the image. So a year later I upgraded to the Canon 60D. Sensors had progressed a lot and now I could use higher ISO for low light photography without it looking too bad. A couple of years after that I decided to move up to full frame and I bought a Canon 6D. Suddenly shooting at 8000 ISO was perfectly normal and I could shoot in clubs without needing a flash or any special illumination on stage. Since then I have downgraded my 60D, first for a Fuji X-T1, and now a Fuji X-T2 (both secondhand). Fujifilm have reignited a love for simple photography. The cameras don’t even need to be switched on for basic adjustments, everything that is really important is on a dial, once switched on, other things are controllable by buttons and perhaps the only menu I ever need is the quick menu. I wasn’t sure about the quality of mirrorless cameras, but I needed a lighter setup due to lower back problems (which occasionally involved me lying down whenever possible for a week to recover from a three hour photo shoot). The quality is fine, I still shoot RAW but only to have that file as a back up, most of the files I publish are JPEGs from the camera with perhaps a little adjustment of highlights, shadows and contrast.
I always recommend these cameras to anybody who wants to start photography because they bring a joy that, at least for me, is not there with a big DSLR. I still use my 6D for ‘important’ work because it is full frame and it has some qualities that cannot be matched by the other cameras. However, a smaller, lighter camera allows you to relax and have fun with photography – and that is what it’s all about. Just about any hobby is good for mental health, I particularly like photography as it provides gentle exercise and a non-verbal way of showing others how I see the world. When I take the camera for a walk it’s similar to meditation, a clear focus and an opportunity to forget the world (while being in it) for a while. I started a 365 project in March (just in time for the pandemic!) which has helped me enormously. A lockdown is not so difficult for me because I can happily spend four or five days without going out, but actually forcing myself out into the world is more difficult. This project means I have to push myself physically (to go outside) and creatively, I’m happy inside my head but in the long run we all need a balance – our own personal yin and yang.