— “What It Looks Like” is an ongoing photographic exploration into the stories of individuals who have experienced depression, anxiety, grief, mood disorders, or any other mental illness. This project aims to share awareness, end stigma, and create dialogue and open communication around mental health. Instead of asking what it feels like, I’ve asked each person ‘What does it look like?’ —
“I think, my goal is to be neutral, to be in between down and high. State that is possible to maintain and when I feel present and real. It’s very hard to achieve. That’s what I’m working on.”
I first met Kristina earlier this year but she’s one of those people you end up feeling that you’ve known for many years. We had some similar friends and had worked on a project with a fellow photographer in London without actually getting to meet until I happened to host a small gathering of photographers in Richmond.
Right away I knew that Kristina has a strength that emits in all that she does. She’s travelled the world photographing people and cultures in a distinct voice and she’s someone that puts all of her energy into what she does. Whether it’s photography, yoga, or putting herself out there to meet her goals, she’s someone who never seems to stop but still manages to have a smile on her face even when it gets hard.
When I asked Kristina to be a part of the project I knew that the photoshoot would be a timely one, as Kristina was set to move to New York City and was feeling the nerves of packing up and heading across the Atlantic. The “What It Looks Like” shoots can already be an emotional experience, but knowing that this was the last time we’d be able to hang out, talk, and photograph for a while made it even more important to me to tell her story.
What It Looks Like – When I’m Down
Reading Kristina’s response to how she felt when she’s feeling down was so relatable to me. She described the feeling as being like a creature with spikes, that people can’t get close to but wanting them to pull her out of the dark space she was in. That feeling of being almost inhuman is one that comes with depression, it feels like it covers your body with something that isn’t you and makes it hard to connect with people we love.
When we set off into the Chantry Woods near Guildford, Surrey, we didn’t have any set locations in mind for the photos. I’d prepared some paper spikes to affix onto her but we didn’t have any specific end place, just wandering as I like to do in the woods. We ended up finding this amazing hollowed out log and after I’d crawled inside, I knew this was the dark space we’d use for Kristina’s photos.
It was fascinating to start shooting the images, Kristina almost became like an actor. Her body language changed as soon as I started putting the spikes on. Our talking quieted, we laughed a bit less, the silence of how powerful these spikes, even if just paper, was strong enough to speak for both of us. I felt chills watching her, I felt like I was watching the transformation of someone I cared about and it was difficult at times because I was afraid that I’d actually push too far and the spikes would end up being real. But after the shots were done and the tape and paper removed, she smiled and handed me a bag filled with fun photography props and it was like the air all came back.
“I think, it’s like I have spikes all over my body. And people are watching and they are afraid to come and talk to me or approach me. And all I want them to do is to reach out and drag me out of this terrible state of mind“
What It Feels Like – Better
After we’d packed up, we started wandering through the woods talking about all sorts of things, about yoga and medidation, about our photography adventures, about people we were friends with. It was quiet in the woods but it felt like our stories were adding to the natural breathing space in the trees. We found a giant tree that I climbed for a photo and we walked a bit further before finding a perfect corn field that I knew I wanted to use for Kristina’s “Better” image.
After we’d tucked ourselves into the rows of cornfields (sorry random farmer!) Kristina told me a story about how her family once had to run through a field of corn, chased by a farmer with a horse and whip and her eyes lit up as she told me this story. Watching her smile come back in this giant field of growth almost seemed like the perfect metaphor, it was really a growing space.
Just like when we shot the spikes photo, Kristina’s body language started changing again as I draped the sparkling Christmas lights over her arms. She had a smile, maybe not intentionally, but real and soft. Her voice was quiet but warm and she was laughing and the experience felt vastly different from the spikes photo only a few minutes before. The rows of corn provided a rather peaceful space to work in, the wind gently blowing the stalks and the far off sounds of the trains rumbling through the hills was a beautiful soundtrack to this “Better” moment.
“I feel like I’m glowing. My friends describe me as an inspiration. I lift people up, that creative flow and collaboration and giving and sharing.“
I like the visuals of showing both that Kristina felt like spikes were coming from within, but also that she was able to have the light coming from within as well. She wrote that balance was important (she’s a wonderful Yogi!) and that it’s no good to be just one side or other other, that the balance is what keeps her feeling present and real.
We walked back through the woods, talking about how to be the best versions of ourselves we could be. It was an afternoon that I don’t think I’ll forget, being able to see her strength in all it’s forms once again.