Why One Photograper Teaches Photography for Better Mental Health

Why One Photograper Teaches Photography for Better Mental Health

Billions of people around the world are self-isolating to slow the spread of Coronavirus. However, it's not just our physical wellbeing at risk, but also our mental health. Stu McKenzie has pioneered a new project to help veterans with PTSD, which could also help those suffering from anxiety and depression during the quarantine.

After 24 years in the British Army, first in the Military Police and then with the army photographic branch, Stu McKenzie was diagnosed with mild PTSD in 2009. After recognizing that photography had helped him through some dark times, he knew it could help others. Through Combat Stress, a charity that provides mental health support for veterans, Stu launched Project Mindscape, designed specifically to help those suffering from PTSD and mental health issues due to their service.

Stu McKenzie carrying out his service with the British Army photographic branch. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

When I started in the photographic branch, there were only 38 professional photographers in the British Army. I was sent to the Joint School of Photography and began retraining. For me, it was a dream come true. As an Army photographer, I was sent all over the world. Wherever the Army was on operations or training exercises, as an Army photographer I was there to cover it. I remember one year, I went to 18 different countries. 

Kazakh Eagle Hunters drive their herd across a frozen lake in remote Western Mongolia during their spring migration into the Altai Mountains. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

Then, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we formed Combat Camera Teams. Once deployed, we would often record the troops at the front. In one particular year, I had been deployed for nearly 10 months, and it was then that I started to have a few issues. I was lucky; my PTSD was flagged up pretty quickly, and I received some amazing treatment. However, it never really goes away; you just learn how to deal with it better. 

Travelling 150km over five days, Kazakh Eagle Hunters migrate with their herd of animals across mountain passes, frozen lakes and rivers. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

As an Army photographer, Stu got access behind the scenes, seeing everything the Army does. “You are effectively a PR photographer, if you’re there, you will record it, warts and all."

As Stu found himself in the throes of PTSD, he started to use landscape photography as a therapeutic tool to heal himself: “I kind of fell into landscape photography. When I was in my darkest moments, I would go out for long walks with my camera. I found that the process of finding a composition and waiting for the right moment was therapeutic; it healed me in a way."

Nenets Reindeer Herders travel south during the winter migration, the journey takes them from Arctic Tundra to the Arctic forests, it is a perilous journey in temperatures reaching lows of -40 C. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

Stu McKenzie poses with a Kazakh Eagle hunter as he ensures that none of the herd are left behind during the spring migration in Western Mongolia. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

Stu points out that photography can offer many benefits to those suffering from PTSD or depression. To start with, learning a new skill is a good distraction, as it forces you to focus on what’s in front of you and gives you new goals to aim for. He believes that landscape photography is therapeutic and grounding because it means spending time outside in nature. “Spending time with other like-minded people is always good. You don’t have to talk about the past; just focus on the here and now and take each day step by step. I contacted Combat Stress and pitched the idea of running a photography workshop for veterans, and they jumped at the idea.”

Stu McKenzie mentors a veteran participant on a Project Mindscape workshop in the Lake District, UK. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

At the moment, [Project Mindscape] is a private project aimed at supporting veterans. However, I’m currently looking at developing it further and gaining future funding. I would love to be able to open the project up to the National Health Service in the UK, and other mental health organizations so we can help with anyone with mental health issues.

Veterans compose images at Derwent Water in the lake District during a Project Mindscape workshop. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

As people around the world are self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable how PTSD sufferers and indeed anyone suffering from mental health issues might feel alone, anxious, or depressed. Having gone through issues like that himself, Stu offers this advice for those that may need help.

You mustn’t suffer in silence, the most important thing you can do is to talk to someone. Even with social distancing measures in place, you can still get in touch with organizations that can help you. Talking to a friend, a family member, or joining a group on social media where you can talk about how you are feeling, all of these will help. There is plenty of help out there and plenty of people willing to listen and assist.

Anthony Boocock, a former British Army Photographer, assists a fellow veteran during a Project Mindscape workshop in the Lake District. Image by Stu McKenzie | www.stumckenziephotography.com

Stu finds that photography can provide therapy during periods of isolation, such as the situation many are finding themselves in now:

If you can’t get out of the house if you are isolated, now is a good time to experiment with photography and try things that you wouldn’t have done before. You can even dig out old images and use them to learn more about Lightroom or Photoshop. Being stuck inside doesn’t mean that you have to stop learning and creating.

Take a Look Inside Stu McKenzie’s Kit Bag: 

Learn More

If you want to learn more about Project Mindscape, click here. To see Stu’s fantastic work, visit his website, or click here to get in touch with Combat Stress. For mental health support in the UK, visit Every Mind Matters, in the US, try Mental Health America, or for those outside of those territories, check out United for Global Mental Health.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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