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Photo Self-portraits as therapy

Oct. 18, 2019
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In the fall of 2017, I was studying abroad in the South of France. Bon Iver had just released a single off their soon-to-come album 22, A Million, which later became the soundtrack to my entire trip. The single was called “33 “GOD,’” and I listened to it over and over. I was a junior in college majoring in photography and set to graduate early, which meant I would complete my senior photography project when I returned home from France. I hadn’t thought much about what I would do for the project, until one day I was lying in bed listening to “33 “GOD’” for the millionth time when it hit me. I realize now that I misheard the lyrics, but at the time, I believed the distorted outro asked, “Why are you so sensitive?” I immediately felt that the song was talking to me.

Shortly after returning home from France and resuming my junior year, I unknowingly began the final photography project of my degree called why r u so sensitive??? It started on February 11, 2017, a Friday night, with the Google search: “which alcohol will make me the least sad?” I was alone in my kitchen trying to figure out what I could drink to prevent myself from having another drunken breakdown—an occurrence that had become characteristic of my nights out. I decided to go with red wine, and ended the night drunk and crying on my bedroom floor. Something in me told me to pick up my camera, and it was then that I took the first ever film photo of myself crying. 

From there, I became obsessed with asking myself why I was so sensitive, photographing myself constantly in an attempt to find the answer. I eventually found out I wasn't just sensitive—I have Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and social anxiety. With my laundry list of mental illnesses, I had to somehow find a way to cope. And so I continued in the one way I knew how: self-portraits. 

I started carrying my film camera everywhere with me, never knowing when something would set me off and I'd end up bursting into tears. At first, the photographing was just for my senior project, but I kept going. I ended up leaving school to go to intensive therapeutic treatment for my mood and anxiety disorders, and continued to document myself through the process. Anytime I cried, I picked up my camera. It was a brief reprieve from feeling my emotions so intensely; taking a photo of myself allowed me to pause and compose myself, if only for a couple seconds. 

Ever since my bipolar diagnosis, I’ve been obsessed with reading memoirs written by people with the disorder in an attempt to feel less alone. My most recent read was Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. She writes, “In the last four years of his life, in and out of mental institutions, Van Gogh painted more than forty self-portraits.” She then asks, “Was he trying to pin down the confusing swirls inside his head, to bring them outside? Did he find a sense of calm? Focus? Relief? Like I did?” Immediately, I thought, YES! That’s something Ellen, Van Gogh, and I all have in common—we’ve used self-portraits as a way to bring our emotions outside of ourselves to try to get a grip on them. 

As strange as it may seem, I love having a folder filled with dozens of photos of me crying. They show me what I’ve been through, that I’ve somehow made it out alive. My self-portraits saved me.