Far too many people I’ve met, particularly during the past 18 months, have been affected by some form of mental health issue, ranging from very mild anxiety to crippling depression – maybe due to the pandemic, maybe not. So what, you may be thinking, has that got to do with street photography? Well, in this article I’m going to explore the relationship between mental health and photography and, in particular, how we can use street photography to improve our mental health.

It’s been a tough 18 months for many of us but as we have now hopefully seen the worst of the pandemic, we can really focus on making some improvements to our mental health – and street photography can provide us with the ideal vehicle for some mental fitness training. Having said that, there’s a caveat: I’m no mental health professional and I offer my thoughts based on many years’ experience working as a street photographer, not as a healthcare professional. If you feel you need professional help, for goodness sake get it before it’s too late.

It is widely accepted – anecdotally and academically – that the art of photography is good for the mind – we can look at it as a form of alternative or complimentary therapy. It can boost our confidence, improve oour memory, calm the mind, alleviate anxiety and reduce stress. But how can we make that work for those of us who are street photographers? Or, maybe if we’re not street photographers, should we consider trying street photography for the therapeutic benefits it can provide? So, how do we go about it?

Let’s start off by just getting ourselves  outside. I read somewhere that spending just 20 minutes outside every day can have the same effect as popping an anti-depressant pill. I don’t know about you but if I’m out shooting the streets, I’m usually out there for the whole day – but even just taking an hour out of your day can only be good. If you’re currently working from home, maybe use your lunch break to get out there and shoot – but make sure you plan it, setting this time aside and staying committed to it. Maybe make it a daily routine – let it become a habit – something to look forward to. And do the same thing if you have to go to a place of work every day – build your photography time into your routine so that it becomes a pleasurable habit.

Then, once you’re outside, remove all the distractions from everyday life – and this usually means turning your phone off. It’s the essential first step in clearing your mind and de-cluttering; I know, for many of us it’s a really hard thing to but but honestly – is the world really going to stop if you go a few hours without checking your emails or Facebook? And this, of course, has  another big benefit in that it will really help you stay in the zone and focus on all the content the street has to offer.

Street photography is often very much about the moment – being in the moment and capturing the moment. When you’re observing life through the camera, you’ll be in the kind of zone which allows you to focus your energy not on the concerns of your ‘real life’, but solely on that moment. And this is really important: once you become transfixed on a creative pursuit, time disappears, you forget yourself and you become absorbed in the moment. The bad stuff – the stresses and the anxieties of life – can be put to one side and you’ll emerge from your session feeling calmer and more present than when you began, which can help enormously in many of life’s difficult situations you may encounter. Just think about the whole process of taking pictures – from hunting for your subjects to working with the changing light – it all requires absolute focus and concentration.

This whole process of observing, analysing and processing information is in itself a meditative task which draws you into a relaxing state.Although street photography is often considered to be a lone pursuit, it certainly needn’t be and the company of others can often help. Spending the day and sharing experiences with other street photographers really helps some people dissipate stress and anxiety. I guess just talking to people helps whatever your issue or setting.

Then we have some physiological effects to consider. According to a body of research by Professor Denise Park from the University of Texas, photography is a highly cognitive activity. Her research found that participants who engaged in digital photography were able to enhance and improve their episodic memory and reasoning skills – and this becomes more relevant as we get older.So here are a couple of specific tips which I hope will help you. And, by the way, we should all be doing this stuff, however we’re feeling.

MAKE POSITIVE IMAGES

When you’re out shooting the streets, try to take positive, happy images rather than dark images. Photographs themselves can be mood stimulants and according to a study called The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature, art therapy can help reduce cortisol, a hormone that causes stress. And bearing in mind that photography is itself an art form and simply taking a positive or beautiful picture can help bring on a state of calm or mindfulness. So now probably isn’t the time to focus on shooting dark, depressing or negative material – instead, maybe embrace the happy or witty subject matter that we often associate with street photography.

WALK SLOWLY

Whenever you’re out shooting, don’t rush about – walk slowly. Quite honestly, this is what we as street photographers should be doing anyway and it’s something I try to get all my workshop students to do – irrespective of any mental health issues – because if you walk slowly you’ll see so much more of the world around you; it will really help you to tune in, observe life and make connections. For me, that’s what street photography is all about. 

START A NEW PROJECT

How about starting a project? Again, irrespective of any mental health issues, you really should be doing this anyway. Shooting a project will give you a goal – something positive to reach for. From personal experience, I know that if I’m not feeling great, having something to focus on can really help, and absorbing myself in a street photography project may be just thing to turn my mood around. You’ll experience a little more of a feel-good factor for every image you take towards your project and you’ll have a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment all the way.

SHOOT STREET PORTRAITS

Connecting with others can be a great way to relax and to bring about positive feelings – and a great way to do this is to shoot street portraits. Once you’ve got over that initial hurdle of asking someone for a portrait – and you really do need to bear in mind that 9 out of 10 people will say ‘yes’ – shooting street portraits can be a heartwarming exercise with a real feel-good factor. Maybe this will take you out of your comfort zone – initially, at least – which in itself will take your thoughts to a different place. Your initial fears will soon fade away and you’ll probably find this quite addictive. This was certainly the case for Brandon Stanton, creator of the ‘Humans of New York’ project. When Brandon lost his job as a bond trader, instead of applying for other stressful jobs, he threw himself into his personal passion: street photography. He said:  “When I lost my job… I could suddenly ask myself: What is it that I want to do? It was the complete opposite of what I was doing before—sitting in front of the computer all day. Now I was out in the world, exploring, meeting people, seeing so many beautiful things, having these random interactions and letting life spill into my experiences.” Turning to photography not only brought him a huge amount of personal joy and gratification, but also resonated with people all over the world – his Instagram account alone is followed by almost 8 million inspired fans.

SHOOT SOME FILM

Now could be the right time for you to experiment with analogue photography and shoot some film. For starters, shooting on film will really slow everything down, letting it become a more thoughtful, mindful process. You won’t be constantly checking the back of your camera to see what the image looks like, which means that you’ll be able to stay in the moment for longer. Then there’s the whole process – the workflow – of shooting film, which could include developing, scanning and printing your images. It’s just a very absorbing and rewarding way to work. And it needn’t be expensive: if cost is a concern, buy a cheap film camera from eBay and some expired film and you’re ready to go. The only danger is it’s easy to get hooked.

READ EXTENSIVELY

I find that absorbing myself in photography books can bring about a mindful state. Take time to look at beautiful or clever images. Try to understand them, try to get into the photographer’s head, maybe even think how you could produce similar work. You might even get the inspiration for a project of your own. Don’t don’t just look at the picture books, read some essays on photography – writers like Geoff Dyer or Susan Sontag. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve put my Amazon reading list together for you here.

I do hope you found this useful and perhaps even therapeutic. For me, one of the great benefits of street photography comes from the artistic or creative endeavour. The ability to express yourself through your picture-taking, with no pressure and without being judged, is one of the most relaxing things we can do. Provided you don’t get sucked into the pressures of pleasing the Instagram algorithm, you can just enjoy it for what it is. If you get some great shots from a day’s shooting, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too.

You can watch the video version of this article here on YouTube.

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