The Other Pandemic, Part Two: An Interview With Jessica McGovern

The Other Pandemic, Part Two: An Interview With Jessica McGovern

COVID-19 has brought 2.7 million deaths worldwide so far; poor mental health kills 8 million every year. Jessica McGovern talks about her own struggles and helping other photographers.

The Two Sides of Mental Health in Photography

A distraction from daily life, photography gets us outside into nature, it helps us to socialize, it is creative, and photographs are an achievable goal. All those things can help improve the health of our minds.

Jessica McGovern. MPA's Pet Photographer of the Year 2020 on a photoshoot.

Because of this, Jessica McGovern’s presentation at The Photography Show (see my previous article) revealing the other side of the story came as a shock. She shared evidence that those working in our industry have more than double the likelihood of suffering from their mental health.

Photographic businesses can be stressful, and that stress can develop into other mental health issues. Furthermore, over the last year during all the coronavirus turmoil, having no income has added extra pressure for many.

Breaking the Taboo

Unbelievably, discussing mental illness is still anathema for many. Worse than that, I’ve come across a few uneducated people with bigoted views who turn against people suffering from their mental health. But it’s something we need to be open and caring about to help prevent suffering and those needless deaths.

Speaking with Jessica, I asked her if she struggled to become so open about her own battles:

Yes, definitely. I’ve a long and complex mental health history starting with my first therapy session, aged 11 and continuing throughout my teen years and early 20s. I had various diagnoses and treatments.

She saw first-hand the mental health pathways in the UK, moving up through the hierarchy from the community mental health team to seeing the regional psychiatrist. She told me it was all in hushed tones, with no openness:

It's so much of a taboo subject (which, thankfully, is breaking now!). So, you think that if you talk about it, or reach out, you’re somehow weak or broken, or worse, ‘attention seeking.’

Jessica finds that admitting that things aren’t as perfect as we usually show to the world is liberating. She says that’s the first step to healing. Becoming open about her own battles started after losing one of her students to suicide:

I remember at that point the community and I just started being really honest. The volume of people who were suffering silently became clear. Nobody felt alone then, and we were all stronger for it. Now, it’s obvious to me that being open about it in a constructive way is helpful, not just for me, but for others too, and that’s awesome!

Pet photograph by Jess McGovern

In Business

We then talked about what aspects of her photography business she finds the most stressful. For her, it’s the pressure she puts on herself to create award-winning work every single time she picks up a camera; Jessica won the MPA Pet Photographer of the Year 2020.

That just isn’t possible! I apply all this pressure and end up creatively stifled as a result, so it’s a downward spiral really.

This probably rings true with many photographers and creators. Research has shown that stress and depression block creativity. Consequently, having too high expectations of ourselves can lower mood, which will, in turn, adversely affect our creative results. It becomes a vicious circle.

Also, the weather!

When Jessica told me this, I nodded in agreement; just this week, I had to call off some photographic work because of the rain.

England and outdoor location shoots can be a bit of a nightmare sometimes; the most I’ve had to reschedule is six times because of heavy rain, named storms, and gale force winds!

Then, what Jessica said was the least stressful aspect of her business took me by surprise.

It is the sales sessions. I genuinely really enjoy them and so do my customers, which I think is a bonus. They say they feel like they are really being taken care of, and that is nice.

Jessica never applies any sales pressure and never feels any from the client. They sit together and laugh and cry at the images. Then, she helps them work through their ideas and picking the right products for their home. For Jessica, it’s a really rewarding part of the entire process.

Also, just having a camera in my hand helps me. I feel confident and capable when I have a camera with me, so if everything else is going wrong, I’ll head out with a dog and a camera and just see what we end up with.

In the Studio

She finds studio photography particularly calming as everything is under her control:

I can think of a concept then build the set, the lighting, the vibe, then shoot and edit. The problem-solving nature of photography is like therapy for me; it’s something I’m hoping to do much more of in the future.

I asked her about all the computer work involved with digital photography, as information technology has been shown to impact negatively on mental health. Jessica admits that she spends more hours than most in front of a screen. Additionally, now that she also teaches and produces digital content, she can be at her desk from anywhere between 6 and 14 hours a day. She admits it is not good but has methods of mitigating the impact of the computer work.

I have a Spotify subscription, and I work with mellow, soothing music, scented candles, and cups of tea.

Jessica believes it’s so important not to focus on the technology itself, but what that is taking away from life. She says to ask yourself whether spending that much time at the screen is causing more social isolation.

Jessica on a photoshoot with her dogs

Is it enriching your life? Is it beneficial? Those are important questions that I think everyone should answer honestly.

Jessica has talked about photographers contacting her with their experiences. She is clearly giving support to photographers suffering from their mental health. This is a huge responsibility, and others must be grateful for all she has done for them.

Jessica's very distinctive and outstanding style of photography.

I don’t really think of it as a responsibility because I am not in control of how another person thinks or feels; I am in control of how I react to that, for sure. But, all I am doing is being there to lean on.

She stresses that she is not a trained mental health professional. But if the situation is at a crisis point, she provides resources and supports the information.

What happens next really is out of my hands. I think that everyone who is struggling with their own demons thinks they are alone — I sure did — so if I can help someone feel less alone and maybe help them to help themselves, that can only be a good thing.

We finished by chatting about her personal photography, and I asked whether she took photos for fun.

Yeah! I like to have a personal project or two on the go at any one time. If I’m shooting for me, I like to push myself more, so I have to learn a new skill or problem solve in the process. My current two projects are exciting but secret at the moment. Sorry!

Jessica McGovern's work

Jessica deserves a great deal of thanks for all her time and the support she gives to those who need it. Please do take a look at her website, subscribe to the photography tutorials on her YouTube channel, and follow her on Instagram to see her award-winning pet photography.

Do You Need Help?

If you are struggling with your mental wellbeing, please do seek help from your doctor or local mental health organization. Where ever you are in the world, Google Searching "Mental health organization near me" should find you the first point of contact.

Images used with the kind permission of Jessica McGovern.

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Mark Smith's picture

So, I am trying to understand. You're saying that stress created due to your own desire for perfection is a mental health problem? I don't understand how working stress becomes a medical issue. I understand the impact of stress as something that can cause medical issues such as stroke and heart attacks but not as a mental health issue.
I've been a photographer for 30+ years working everywhere from commercial work through commission work to personal work. Sure, I've spent 36 straight hours developing prints in the film days and I've spent the same amount editing and preparing digital images. In some cases, I was told I wouldn't get paid unless I meet a certain level of quality. These were the daily, weekly, and monthly stresses to pay my bills, pay my mortgage, feed my family. I never looked at this stress as part of any mental health issue, but as a motivator to work better and smarter and to find more clients.

Tdotpics photography's picture

Say it again

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Mark, Thanks for joining in the conversation. This article is a follow on from Part 1 which showed that the prevalence of mental illness is far higher in the photographic industry than in the general population.

There is a semantic issue with the word stress; it can mean different things. It's proven that long term exposure to stressors can cause a stress reaction. That isn't a mental illness, and that - typically over a long period - causes the clinical psychological illness of stress.

Unfortunately not everyone is as resilient as you. Anyone who has pre-existing mental health issues is more prone to the negative effects of stress. You were fortunate that you are not one of the one in four who are suffering with their mental health now.

Chris Rogers's picture

"Unfortunately not everyone is as resilient as you" Lucky duck this dude. I hope he never has to deal with mental health issues. It really really sucks beyond imagination. Imagine your mind being in a deep dark pit with only one tiny light miles above your head that you need to get to but for some reason the pit gets deeper and deeper and you can't understand why. Everyone's pit is different with differing horrors of the mind. It's actually way worse than that but yeah point is it's not fun having to live with that kind of stuff. In nerd speak I guess it feels like being relentlessly attacked by a mind flayer until your mind buckles and then physically bad things happen.

T Van's picture

I'd agree to a certain degree.
I've worked and managed in the industry for decades. I'd agree there are more people in our business who I'd be very wary of working with, or hiring. It attracts a certain element. I don't think it's the work that is the major contributor as much as it is the pre-existing baggage some bring with them to the job.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I once worked for a major local organization, the biggest employer where I then lived. The union had identified that over half of the staff were on antidepressants because of the appalling way it treated them and the resulting work related stress. That organization still has a massive staff turnover. Looking at it from the point of view of a business owner, that is appallingly bad for costs and for the business's reputation.

I also worked for an international business that really looked after its staff and were supportive when people faced issues. Consequently, the levels of stress-related illness were very low. They are highly thought of by their existing and retired employees.

Fortunately, the Master Photographers Association has recognized there is an industry-wide issue. It does little to support people who are struggling. Because of that, photographic businesses will be suffering both with their reputation and financially.

Hopefully, attitudes within photography businesses will be led into the 21st Century, where mental health is treated with the same care and support that is given to people with cancer. 9.6 million people die each year from that and mental health is not far behind, killing 8 million.

T Van's picture

Yes I can relate to that. My job is very stressful and the environment is somewhat toxic. It's a huge corporation. There is a lot of turn over. The stress is not helpful for people who have mental health issues.

Matt Williams's picture

You've entirely misinterpreted basically the entire article.

No, stress is not a mental health problem. That doesn't even make sense.

Stress can EXACERBATE already existing mental health problems. Which is what was said here.

And fine, stress for you is a motivator. Guess what? There's over 7 billion people on the planet who are not you.

I have anxiety, bi-polar depression, and ADHD. *Sometimes* stress can be a motivator to me. Even anxiety, which I suffer from even just sitting at home watching netflix, can be a motivator for me - it often is, depending on where the anxiety is stemming from. After all, most people experience anxiety and/or stress on a daily basis - if they didn't, a lot of things wouldn't get done.

Maybe you don't suffer from mental health issues. I'm fairly confident you don't, because otherwise you wouldn't say "I understand the impact of stress as something that can cause medical issues such as stroke and heart attacks but not as a mental health issue."

You don't seem to understand how underlying, always present, will always be a part of your life mental health issues (e.g. depression in its many forms) are easily exacerbated by MANY things, none of which are the same for any one person.

This is even in the above article: "I’ve a long and complex mental health history starting with my first therapy session, aged 11 and continuing throughout my teen years and early 20s. I had various diagnoses and treatments."

Various diagnoses. Starting at age 11. That should clue you in that stress is not a mental health issue.

Educate yourself before talking down to someone who knows what they're talking about.

Mark Smith's picture

I don't think so. I read the title "The Two sides of Mental health in Photography" and looked at why? Not in a belittling way but to understand how in her case. Second, I am a Marine Corps Infantry Veteran, with many friends of mine dealing with PTSD, Anxiety, Depression, and other mental health issues. Some have even committed suicide. I have more experience with Mental Health issues than I want. I look at this story from a lens where Mental Health issues come from Combat, not the Stress of Being a Perfectionist as a Photographer as the author stated.

Matt Williams's picture

Then that's a stupid way to look at it.

If your definition of stress, or your bar for what is acceptable to be stressed out about, is related to combat, that's extremely messed up.

I won't even get into all the reasons why because you'd probably get offended. I am very sorry about your friends, truly - this country's treatment of veterans is shameful. Just disgusting. So I empathize with you entirely in that regard.

Jessica McGovern's picture

Think you missed the point here Mark connecting two disconnected parts of the conversation. At no point did I say that pressure to create award-winning work every time I go out is a mental health problem. I could have said I was stressed about bookings, or money, or a huge to-do list, or whatever, I personally do not see those things as negative stress (a bit like you, likely because of similar past experiences), but that doesn't mean that others don't. I would never say that someone's stress is less or more important than my own because it is how that stress impacts that person that matters. Their cumulation of life's experiences will change that widely from person to person and that's normal and ok.

If you are wanting a causative statement to take away, it would be this: Long term sustained stress, usually financial in our industry, paired with Social Isolation, another common denominator in our industry, are key factors in the development of common mental disorders (CMDs). So how can we, as a community or an industry, help to build resilience, support or solutions in these areas? That is the question I think is most important.

As a side note, please don't pick apart a short summary of my view of the world from an interview, just as I would not pick apart yours from your comments, though I do thank you for your service.

Hope this helps to clear this point up 🙂

Mark Smith's picture

Hi. First, I'm not judging you or anyone else. As I stated above, I'm just trying to understand. Trying to understand by asking questions. I would hope that in order to bring forth such a topic you and others here would want to have more questions so that we can understand more.
Second, I looked at this section
"For her, it’s the pressure she puts on herself to create award-winning work every single time she picks up a camera;"..."That just isn’t possible! I apply all this pressure and end up creatively stifled as a result, so it’s a downward spiral really." as the genesis of my inquiry.
I am not picking apart this story, I am trying to understand based upon this part of the authors posting. I am not here to hurt or disrespect anyone or their work. However, I think if we post articles and stories we should be able to discuss/debate/question/answer those posts. This done in a respectful way is where we find understanding. Isn't that what we want, understanding? I didn't call you or the author stupid or any other derogatory names as others have done to me just for trying to understand.
I've learned much from this post, it has also confirmed much that I have experienced in the 30+ years as a Photographer. Know that much of what is in this post I've lived over and over many times and unfortunately has been normalized in my life for better or worse. That doesn't make me better or worse than you, nor does it compare me to you. I believe it makes us closer to the same then it does different. Peace.

Jan Holler's picture

This is rather a collection of annotated short quotes than an interview. After reading it I still do not see a connection between photography and her personal issues, which she apparently already had when she was 11. Anyway, it is brave to talk about it and it might encourage other people (not just photographers) to look for help. But one thing annoyed me a bit. She answered "Also, the weather!" when talking about stress. Please!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Jan, thanks for replying. Most of the writing between the quote blocks, was actually Jessica's words which I just changed to third person to make the article easier to read. I could have made the article 4000 words long, but unfortunately it is shown that the attention span of most people reading screens is pretty short and that would not get read. Sad but true!

This was a follow-on article from a previous one that showed the connection. The research that was carried out by the Master Photographer Association showing the far higher levels of common mental disorders in the photographic industry than in the genera public. Jessica was the instigator of the research because of her realization that photographers were badly affected. You can read more about it here in Part 1:

Jan Holler's picture

Hi Ivor, I have read part 1 and also the comments. Now I have the understanding. Thank you. I am very impressed with people like Jessica and also with you for bringing it up and writing so thoughtfully about it.

One thing you mention in a statement to part1: "... that the survey carried out amongst employees of the photographic industry in the UK was matched against a control group of the general population."
Would be interesting to see a match against a different closed group, such as musicians, writers, painters, dance performers, journalists... if there are other groups with similar symptoms. And if yes, what they have in common. (But just as a side question).

Btw: I don't think the theory of "victimhood in Western society" as the (main) cause of the problem is proven, and if it were, it would be far too generalized.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, I agree with you. The full report by the MPA hasn't been published yet - I was promised it would be last week, and they would contact me. So it will be interesting to see what comparators they used when it does finally get published.

El Dooderino's picture

Great article! I love her work and I think it's great she's sharing and using her personal experiences to help others who may be struggling mentally during this pandemic. We're all only human after all and needing a little help shouldn't be stigmatizing.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Absolutely. Thank you for taking the time to comment.