May is Mental Health month so I’d like to take a brief break from discussing the technical aspects of photography and address an issue that impacts everyone in some way shape or form.
I’m certainly no expert in mental health and do not presume for a second that my advice is a solution for serious mental health issues. The trend towards more open conversation about our mental health is very positive and I encourage anyone who is struggling with mental health issues to speak with friends and family and to seek professional help when required.
As a photojournalist for the better part of three decades I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to document many world events, both joyous and incredibly tragic. It is the nature and most vital component of journalism that we bear witness to history in order to record it accurately and with sensitivity for the world to see, to feel, and to learn from. It is impossible to imagine that exposure to tragic events, either brief, prolonged, or repeated over years of work does not have some level of impact on the mental health of the professionals who share stories from around the globe. Yes journalists choose to work in these environments, as do soldiers, doctors, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and so on. But it is only in recent years that PTSD among soldiers and first responders has really been getting the attention it deserves and in my personal experience the journalism field lags far behind in addressing the needs of its professionals.
Haiti 2010Stenlove Migine, 8, in her white dress, walks home from her father's funeral on Jan. 20, 2010. The whereabouts of her mother were unknown. The earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12 , 2010 devastated the country and left hundreds of thousands of people dead, suffering and homeless. But 45 per cent of HaitÕs population is children, and these survivors are among the most disoriented and vulnerable. Many are confused, have lost their parents, their homes. Separated from their families many have taken shelter in camps or orphanages, been taken in by relatives or have just been picked up by strangers. Many can be found wandering alone, foraging for food, or looting with violent mobs. Their lives have become a thing of nightmares, but yet, the resiliency of a child could still be found amongst the destruction as some children played with kites, and soccer balls, and doing their best to be children. There is a myth that the camera acts as an insulator between the photographer and what they are shooting. In my opinion this couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we are making images the level to which we must visually engage with what we are photographing is elevated far beyond the glance we can give something with our naked eyes. It is the details in a scene that we cannot look away from while we wait for that moment when the image is strongest. We cannot look away when looking becomes too difficult. And we cannot be cold to the people whose lives we are portraying. It is those photojournalists who feel compassion and empathy for the individuals they interact with who are able to tell their stories in the most effective way. If you can remember an image that has left an indelible mark on your psyche then imagine what the person who lived and worked through that moment must feel.
If you choose to work in these environs, or know someone who does, perhaps there are things you might do to mitigate the impact of these moments.
In my career I have enjoyed beauty and have shed tears of sadness in hospitals, conflict zones, and during natural disasters. Telling any story honestly in challenging circumstances can be difficult but I will always look for moments of beauty - no matter how small - that give me hope and a brief break from everything else that is going on.
Rarely have these images been published but they are important to me because they show hope and human resilience when surrounded by chaos. They are a reason to smile when there are few, and a memory to look back upon that can be a distraction from the more dire details of that period in time.
Refugee portraitRefugee girl, and her tortoise in Mogadishu, Somalia. In Haiti I encountered a little girl in a white dress walking along a rubble-strewn street following the 2010 earthquake there. She was walking home with her uncle after a funeral for her father. There was no single assignment harder to photograph than Haiti in 2010 - physically, logistically, and emotionally - but I think that being able to find something to smile about, even if for only a brief moment, helped me get through those terrible days.
While in Mogadishu, Somalia I most unexpectedly stumbled upon a refugee girl and her pet tortoise. I was working on a story about mental health in Mogadishu and was visiting a very run-down warehouse that was being used as a mental hospital by a local doctor. In the courtyard I came across the little girl whose family had fled from conflict and famine and had found shelter inside a single, dilapidated room. She simply sat there, looking strong and confident, and allowed me to make images as her tortoise slowly tried to inch out from beneath her. n That scene, stark contrast to the famine around her, will bring a smile to my face until the end of my days.
Outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, a country whose people have endured centuries of war, I was able to photograph some school children playing among the ruins neighbouring their schoolhouse and was struck by their laughter as they danced.
KABUL CDNS_PMP070.JPGChildren play inside the rubble strewn Naswar Primary girls school in the village of Tangi Seyyedan. Most of the school has been destroyed during past fighting. Twice before NGO's have promised a new school, but nothing has been done.(Photo by Peter Power) These images may be few, but they are a regular staple of my work and endure as reminders to me of all that is good and beautiful in the world. When I look back on my career and my images I realize that I never set out to find these moments of respite from an often cruel reality, but I can see now how they have helped me focus on something uplifting instead of something much worse when I needed it.
Today I find peace and tranquility in the company of family and friends; most often surrounded by nature. My personal images, and often my approach to making them, help me slow down and appreciate the wealth of love and joy in my life.
Dealing with mental health issues is of course not as simple as thinking positively or finding a distraction from the world around us. It is not just a matter of finding something to smile about. Our mental health needs to be taken seriously regardless of who we are, what we do, or where we live. We are all a family and need to trust in others, share our thoughts, speak our minds, and provide encouragement and support in whatever forms that may take.