The Benefits of Photography to Mental Health and Well-Being

A growing number of studies have shown that taking part in creative work can benefit mental health and well-being. When mental illness affects nearly half of the global population at some point by the age of 40, examining ways to promote psychological health is paramount.


mental health photography black and white photograph Kennedy iris28
Image: Megan Kennedy

According to the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, there is increasing evidence in the field of neuroscience that the generation of art enhances brain function by regulating brain wave patterns, cognition, emotions, expressiveness and the nervous system. Art can also lift serotonin levels, a naturally produced chemical needed for nerve cells and brain functionality. Because of this, art can help prevent or ease the burden of mental illness. Here, we look at some of the benefits of art practice, specifically focusing on the positive link between photography and well-being.


Mindfulness and Resilience


In photography, the camera operates by taking one exposure at a time. No matter the shutter speed, the camera is designed to shoot each photograph one after another in a neat linear sequence. As a result, a wealth of visual information is broken down into small parts or frames. Taking up the camera welcomes this quality of slicing time into digestible segments, a manifestation that can expand to inform larger everyday mindfulness - taking life moment-by-moment.


Indeed, the successes of photographic practice will ebb and flow. Equipment can fail and inspiration and technical knowledge can fall short. Nevertheless, drawing on experience and a love of the medium, photography encourages resilience and perseverance on the basis that nothing is perfect. By maintaining a photographic process in difficult times, and taking each day moment-by-moment, a photographer can build a lasting resilience in the face of adversity.



Focus, Relaxation and Reward


Becoming lost in photography grants a much-needed break from rumination and anxiety. Instead of focusing on detrimental thinking patterns and mindsets, photography can activate networks in the brain to induce a lasting relaxed and reflective state, while also generating a greater ability to direct attention.


mental health photography color neon photograph Kennedy iris28
Image: Megan Kennedy

Photography rewards dedication, providing a visual scale of growth and achievement. While the act of picking up a camera can seem impossible at times, photography can motivate a focused and committed practice overall. By tracking progress visually, a photographer is rewarded through personal growth and creative expression. While mental illness can suck the joy from any activity, the challenge of taking up the camera to discover unique photographic opportunities can open up the path to satisfaction and wonder. From capturing the raindrop on a blooming flower to executing a masterful street photograph, moments of success are enhanced and preserved by photography, feeding a positive cycle built on personal creative evolution.



Connection


There is a common misconception that the photographer is somewhat removed from a subject during the making of a photograph. While photographers alone may not work on canvas, or physically sculpt textural effigies, the photographer is just as active in synthesizing the nature of a subject.


mental health art photography fern peaceful color green photograph Kennedy iris28
Image: Megan Kennedy

Even if only for a split second, photographers form a unique emotional bond with every subject. This creates a reflective practice that forges a connection between the photographer, the subject and the moment. Through visual and physical experience, this connection in turn creates a state of awareness and mindfulness that prioritizes creative possibilities, soothing unwanted psychological noise.



Exploration and Documentation



From working in the studio to photographing abroad, photography encourages thorough exploration. Driven by an innate curiosity, exploring the world with a camera taps into our instincts, which can shift the emphasis from poor psychological wellness to the interactive process of seeking and capturing engaging subject matter. This creative scrutiny reevaluates surroundings and encourages new perspectives, re-framing the surrounding environment as a vessel of vital photographic opportunity.


In addition, photography is also a form of visual documentation, allowing recorded moments to be revisited at any time. This accessibility allows for revision and inspiration, but it also provides the photographer with a larger timeline of progress, a way to relive successes and a means to enjoy and share memories.



Stress Relief and Self Awareness


In 2010, scientists analyzed and reported a summary of over 100 studies focusing on the effects of art on physical and psychological health. The review, titled The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature reported that, among other benefits, making art reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.


icm photography abstract mental health creative art yellow iris28 Megan Kennedy
Image: Megan Kennedy

Focusing on a creative task is a proven way to calm anxious thoughts and overcome stressful situations. By taking up the camera or other photographic media, a photographer can focus on a practical and engaging task, disrupting the cyclic nature of anxiety and stress.



Self-awareness builds the ability to make informed decisions based on the self, contributing to an overall sense of well-being. While photography can reduce stress, it can also cultivate self-awareness, creating a lasting psychological boost. By taking up photography to combat psychological distress, a photographer makes room for self-evaluation and experimentation, creating a space to learn and adjust personal patterns. In developing a creative photographic routine, a photographer can discover more about the self, helping to identify both positive and negative processes to build upon.


 


References

CMHA | American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine | National Library of Medicine



 

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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.






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