Photography offers an escape unlike any other. It allows us to capture moments, create moments, and interpret the worlds we see through a lens. We document, we study, we create art, and for me, this was lifesaving.
Several years ago, in my early twenties, I suffered a huge mental breakdown. It was unexpected, out of control, and hard. Truth be told, I’d been suffering for many years before this but as we all do from time to time, I just pretended my problems weren’t there. I wasn’t pleasant to be around, my head was a very busy place, and I was struggling to cope.
Over the course of a few weeks, I began to lose control of my life and lose grip on my reality. I made an attempt on my life. I didn’t go through with it. Thinking back, I don’t think I ever would have — I had too much to lose, but I was lost inside my own thoughts, consumed by anger, paranoia, stress, and depression.
I eventually saw a doctor who diagnosed me on the spot. I was prescribed anti-depressants and put on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist. I was in and out within an hour and left back to my own devices. I tried the tablets for a week or so but they didn’t really work for me, I needed something that would occupy my thoughts, something that would take up my time and stop me from thinking negatively. That’s when I picked up a camera.
My wife’s uncle sold me an old Sony Alpha 100 (Sony’s first DSLR). He’d been a photographer for years and I’ve always admired his work. I started to have a play with the camera, photographing everything and anything I could. The more I did, the more I felt better, the more my head became clearer. I tried every genre possible, but there was one in particular that kept me coming back more and more: macro photography.
I’d always been interested in the natural world as a small boy growing up, but in my teenage years this wasn’t a ‘cool’ thing to enjoy so it got shoved down while I gave in to peer pressure and put on a persona to fit in — you could say this was one of the things that led to my breakdown. There’s only so long you can keep up a fake smile, a fake you.
Now I had a prime opportunity to explore that passion once more, only this time I could embrace it, dive headfirst into this world, and fall in love with the natural world once more.
Over time I picked up new skills, new kit, and a new attitude on life. When I’m outside in nature, I feel completely different. I think we all do.
Think about it for a second: how many times have you gone for a walk on your own or with family members and friends to a local woods or park? How do you feel when you’re walking around? How do you feel when you get home? You feel relaxed, you feel refreshed, you feel inspired, and for me, this was a perfect antidote.
When I’m looking through the lens, I enter a world not many see, I enter a world of macroscopic wonder, the world of the arthropods. I’m no longer in our world, a world full of social media comparisons, fake news, war, worry, and stress. That doesn’t exist here. This world is so much more different than ours, it’s a world full of color, romance, detail, life and wonder, bound by no rules, only mother nature. I was hooked!
What I didn’t realize was that while I was out capturing these amazing moments in front of me, my head would become clearer and clearer. I was practicing mindfulness without even knowing it.
Months later, I would return to work. People would comment on how different I was, almost a new entirely different person. I would tell them it’s not new, that this is the real me. I no longer had to pretend, I no longer had to crumble to the pressure from society to act a certain way or follow certain trends to fit in. I had the confidence to be me.
Over the years that followed, my photography seemed to go from strength to strength. I was published in magazines, I’d won competitions. I was invited on BBC Autumnwatch to discuss my photography, but most shocking of all, I was published with a featured gallery with National Geographic Italy.
Wow, how my life had changed. From the brink of suicide to National Geographic in a few years. Without photography and the help and support from my family, I don’t think I would have made it this far. I don’t think I’d even be here, but I am!
Am I free from my mental health problems? Most definitely not. I still have my down moments, and they can sometimes last for weeks, but now I know one thing that can help and when I’m feeling like this is just picking up my camera and head out. I’d be lying if I said it cures me every time — it doesn’t — but it gives me that fighting chance!
The most important thing to remember in all of this is to never stay silent. Speak up. Talk to someone, talk to anyone. Never suffer in silence. Photography was and continues to be my elixir, along with my family.
You just need to find yours.
About the author: Matt Doogue is an award-winning macro photographer based in the UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Doogue has been featured by the BBC, National Geographic, and Canon. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.