Bryce Evans remembers grappling with feelings of deep loneliness while he was growing up, but it wasn’t until much later that he was able to put a name to his sense of sadness. Depression and anxiety gripped the Edmonton native, yet even after identifying those conditions, he wasn’t too inclined to speak openly about them.
In high school and college, he began getting more into photography. Then it clicked: the art form was not just a way for him to express himself but also a way for him to heal.
“Photography saved my life,” Evans, who moved to Vancouver three years ago, tells the Georgia Straight by phone.
He explains how two years earlier he posted on Facebook a series of photos that illustrated what he was going through. The response overwhelmed him: people offered support, with some getting in touch privately to tell him that they, too, suffered from mental illness.
“A lot of times with depression and anxiety, especially if you haven’t gotten help, you think you’re the only one who’s feeling that way; you feel alone,” Evans says. “After I published the photo-series project online, the overall response was positive. I got people PMing me, saying: ‘I know what you’re talking about; I go through similar things.’ I got the immediate sense that I’m not alone in this after all.
“After I put it out to the world, I started to talk about it more and connect with people more over it,” he says. “People started telling their stories.”
Evans, 23, wanted to open up to others about his experience with photography as a means to overcome mental illness, so he founded the One Project (www.theoneproject.ca/ ), the first global photography community specifically for people with depression and anxiety. The safe and nonjudgmental online space, where members have their own personal dashboard, allows people to use photos to explore, process, and express how they’re feeling; start a conversation about their experiences with the conditions; and connect with others who can relate.
It also teaches and promotes “therapeutic photography” as a tool to learn, heal, and grow. Therapeutic photography involves taking, analyzing, and using photos for the purpose of personal healing, growth, or understanding, whether consciously or unconsciously. By actively constructing, analyzing, and reflecting on photographs, people are able to learn more about themselves and how they see the world around them.
“A lot of times I’ve found that people can have these ‘aha’ moments where something hits them and either helps to shift their perspective a little bit or also gives them that sense that they’re not alone,” Evans says. “People can connect with something the photographer may or may not have been trying to communicate. With all of the junk around the words relating to mental illness that people can get caught up in, with photos you can have an immediate connection, a very powerful experience.
“On the other side of it, when you’re someone with depression and anxiety who’s taking photos, you’re literally looking through a different lens, and that gives you a different perspective on the world,” he adds. “It helps you to focus externally versus getting caught up in your head. Photography is about focusing outward, but it’s also introspective. If you take a series of photos, you might start to see patterns in your photos.”
Using the hashtag #storymeet, members of the One Project can participate in “Instameet” gatherings, where they get together with their cameras and tag posts from the event on Instagram. Meet-ups have taken place in Vancouver, Los Angeles, Calgary, and other cities around the globe; so have One Project exhibitions.
Aside from helping people find their way through depression and anxiety with the click of a shutter, the One Project also aims to build a better understanding of mental illness. A team of advisers includes Florida-based licensed marriage and family therapist Nakya Reeves, licensed clinical professional counsellor Joni Gilbertson from Illinois, and, locally, Judy Weiser, whom Evans considers a mentor. Weiser, a registered psychologist, is the founder of Vancouver’s PhotoTherapy Centre and the author of PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums.
Therapeutic photography (where no formal therapy takes place and no therapist or counsellor is involved) combines “photographic practices where the intended goal is to produce positive change in individuals, couples, or families” with techniques of “social action photography…where the goal is to improve well-being, reduce social exclusion, and create positive change at community, societal, national, or international levels”, according to Weiser’s website.
“A lot of people are using these techniques and they’re aware of it; others are using them without knowing it, just naturally,” Evans says. “And there are a lot of people who could really benefit from them.
“Most of us have a camera, even if it’s just our phone, and we know through personal experience there’s an emotional connection to photography,” he notes. “With the One Project, we want to work on collaborative ideas, where members of our community can contribute to improving mental-health awareness and resources through images, experiences, and shared information.”