This is the story of how I wrestled with death twice to live for photography. Before I wrote this article, I told a couple of people about it since it means so much to me. Although some didn’t understand how I could talk so openly about this topic, I decided that it’s my duty to generate awareness and help others even if it means that I’m revealing my biggest struggle in front of the world.
Ever since I could think, I loved being creative. I drew a lot of pictures when I was younger and not one day passed where I didn’t build something new with Lego or something else. When I was a teenager, I wanted to apply my creative drive to as many outlets as possible.
It all started with gaming: finding creative, daring strategies to win Counter-Strike clan wars. After a while, building my own maps fascinated me more than anything. I spend day and night coming up with my very own digital worlds to play in. One of my maps even made it to the biggest gaming magazine in Germany.
To hopefully work in the gaming industry one day, I began coding. If my grades didn’t make it obvious already, this endeavor soon made me realize how mathematically challenged I am.
I wanted to find something new, so I kept myself busy with film editing and Photoshop. It was fun, but being color-blind — having a red-green weakness, in my case — makes it way harder to work as a designer one day. I found something new then. Loving music more than anything else in the world, I lived the rock star life on the smallest of all stages with my bass and my punk band for a year or two only to realize: yeah, you may love music, but that doesn’t translate well into creating it.
I left for university in the Netherlands in 2007 and during my college years this fun creative exploration all of a sudden had this bitter new flavor called real life. My biggest dream was always to work creatively. The only creative passion left was coming up with advertising ideas and slogans.
Coming up with fun ways to advertise something always fascinated me. I applied for a side job in a marketing agency to pay my tuition fees and rent, and to learn more about it. It just felt so good. Getting paid for being creative. After a while the dream arose in me that I wanted to become the next Don Draper, the big shot creative director who’s working for clients worldwide. At the end of my bachelor’s studies, I applied for an internship at one of Germany’s most successful advertising agencies, passed the creative test, and made it there in February 2010!
Completely overworked from my side job and my international study abroad, I burned out after 3 months and suffered from severe depressions and anxieties for the next half year. I couldn’t write anymore, I couldn’t live anymore, and I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I was scared to leave my room, let alone the house.
I was 21 at the time and couldn’t handle seeing my dreams shatter in front of my young, innocent eyes. I thought I’d never be able to live my creative dream because I didn’t have anything else that I felt on a creative level. I was utterly devastated and trapped in the infinite depths of depression.
The grim reaper was breathing down my neck day in and day out. When you are depressed, he becomes your “companion” who doesn’t leave you alone until you give in and kill yourself — or you take hundreds of leaps of faith and kick his a**!
Every day I did something I wasn’t able to do the day before. Get out of bed before 6 PM, write two sentences, do the dishes, cook something, leave the house for a couple of minutes, do the groceries, talk to people again, continue with the rest of my bachelor’s study, etc… It took me more than half a year to swim all the way from the bottom of this suffocating lifeless ocean of nothingness to the top again. I woke up into a nightmare every day with the grim reaper giving me a vicious good morning kiss for so long that I even felt sorry for him when I beat the hell out of him at the end of 2011.
He was gone. I was there again. I finished my bachelor’s and was left with no creative career to pursue. The only thing I could do was for once in my life stop giving a crap. What I had left was my interest in analyzing things and doing research though. So I did that and poured all my energy into my minor in Psychology and my master’s degree in Consumer Psychology. After the first weeks of living the researcher’s life, my creative thirst was unstoppable. I had to do something!
My best childhood friend Felix bought a camera and showed me the photos he took. Although my father’s urge to capture every second of our family vacations annoyed me to no ends back then, I loved the idea of being able to express my feelings through photography, so I bought my first camera as well.
I spent the next two years taking photos of nearly everything around me, but without ever finding myself. I mean, it was fun and I always liked it, but it just didn’t feel right. I took photos, but not of myself. I couldn’t pour my eye, heart and soul into them. I was about to give up, because I couldn’t even take portraits and I still can’t.
My old market research demanded so little energy on the creative side that I had to release it somewhere. At the end of 2012 I was about to quit photography and find something new that could be my creative outlet. I had been doing it for two years and thought to myself: if you quit, then go out with a huge bang. So without any preparation I started a 365 Project on January 1st in 2013, which is the day I signed up for Flickr.
Being forced to find something every day I like to shoot, I soon stumbled upon my oasis called street photography. All of a sudden it made sense. All these years I loved to observe strangers in the city, the way they looked when they were under a street lamp or passing through a dark alley. I always loved it, but I never knew how to express it.
I would love to draw or paint these scenes, but I paint worse then the elephants I saw in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so I never really gave it a try. After about 2 months I dedicated my 365 project to capturing strangers on the street and I’ve been doing this ever since. From the beginning through the end of the project, an urge to live street photography and leave my safe and secure well-paying 9-5 job became bigger with every day.
During travels to Israel and South Korea, people were always asking me what I was doing for a living. I always said: “I doing market research for a living, but I’m actually living for photography!” After the 10th time of saying that, I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. When I came back from Seoul I told my supervisor: “That’s it, I have to live my dream! I quit.”
Since I didn’t want to work with the galleries and art dealers that had been approaching me with their degrading conditions, I founded my own international fine arts label, NEOPRIME, with my dear friend, highly talented photographer, and business partner, Martin Dietrich.
We wanted to sell our art as signed and limited prints the way we wanted to see it: with the highest quality available on the market, 3% donations to worldwide charities for every sale (most of them go to depression help so far) and more than fair conditions for our signed artists. But doing this on your own with no art background, no influential friends, and almost no money was the biggest challenge I’ve ever had to face.
I spent the next months building NEOPRIME from scratch while Martin and I burned through my savings with investments in the label and paying the rent. Although I sold a good amount of prints when the label launched in May 2014, it wasn’t enough yet to keep me above water. A few months later, my long-time girlfriend and I broke up, and my dream of living life as an artist shattered once again. Do I have to go back to my cubicle farm now? Will I ever make it? I love this so much, but it doesn’t pay the bills enough yet. Since my ex-girlfriend stayed in our apartment, I had nowhere to go except my parents’ place.
There I was, 26 years old, broke, back again in this rural place that doesn’t let me breath in life, and of course he came back: the grim reaper.
I was severely depressed again. Not as bad as the first time, but the grim reaper was hugging me with his cold, lifeless arms again whispering “I’m back, buddy” after giving me a kiss of death. I sunk to the bottom of this endless sea again. I though I’d never experience this again, but I did.
Waking up to this nightmare, hanging out with death all day, not being able to live life. And the worst part of it all: I didn’t love photography anymore. It meant nothing to me. That’s what depression does to you. It tells you that you are a failure. This sickness convinced me every day that because I couldn’t live off my dream that I’m simply not good enough and it isn’t meant for me. I couldn’t take photos for half a year again till the end of 2014. There is a huge gap in my work during that time.
At this point I want to express my deepest gratitude to Martin who was managing NEOPRIME basically on his own during my sickness. Without him the label would’ve gone downhill and I’m so happy to have him as my friend, daily inspiration, and label partner.
At the beginning of 2015 I knocked out the grim reaper after the 14th round with tears and blood all over my face. But I did it. I survived this horrible disease called depression again thanks to great medical help and loving friends and family. So if you are reading this right now and you have the feeling that you might be suffering from depression, get help no matter how stigmatized it may be in your country.
Don’t feel ashamed. It’s a sickness just like diabetes, cancer or the flu. Talk to your family doctor, neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, best friends and family. If you have no one to talk to, please send me an email and I’ll be here for you.
After every dark night comes a bright day and after every winter is a beautiful spring. If you know someone who’s suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental health problems, call them right now. I mean it. They need it more than anyone else. Tell them that you are there for them and that you and the world need them.
I want to live in a world where everyone with mental disorders can speak openly about it like any other disease and get proper treatment. This article may reveal my biggest weakness, but if I can help one single person out there to feel only one tiny bit better, it was worth it!
I thought a lot about life and photography and once I saw the light of life again, I saw photography again. I wanted to grab my camera, go out there and create art again. In order to truly live life as an artist, I had to go back to the one place where I never suffered from depression and where I always could be myself: the Netherlands.
I moved to Amsterdam and after only a couple of days I couldn’t have felt more at home. It’s the most international city in the world. 187 nationalities under one roof, the most important thing here is loving life and being yourself and that was exactly what I needed to live fully through photography. So if you are ever in Amsterdam, let’s love life together.
After receiving my 21st international award recently and making it to the shortlist of the Sony World Photography Awards 2015, I sold more signed and limited prints than ever before. I realized again that maybe I’m not that bad of a photographer depression made me think I was. I also realized that the only thing that keeps me healthy and alive is photography. I have to do this. I have to live this life. There’s no plan B, no exit plan, no return ticket.
Mark Twain once said that there are two important days in your life, the day you are born and the day you find out why.
I not only had to experience these two days, but also two deaths to find my passion and purpose. It may have been as hurtful as it gets, but I always look on the bright side of things and I’m happy to appreciate life even more now. Will I suffer from depression again one day? I don’t know.
The only thing I know is that if the grim reaper ever decides to come back again, he better make sure that I’m as old and weak as it gets.
Dear grim reaper, you may take me then, but if you want to get me now, you better come with two blades, because this time you won’t fight me alone!
P.S. In order to show you what depression feels like, how I overcame it and the fears that came along with it, check out the following video I made. It also shows three highly effective methods to overcome your fear of capturing strangers, becoming invisible on the street and handling any confrontation: