The Other, Bigger Pandemic Hitting Photography: Part One

The Other, Bigger Pandemic Hitting Photography: Part One

The WHO says approximately 450 million people currently suffer from mental health and neurological disorders. That’s over three-and-a-half times the number that have ever had COVID-19. Within the photographic industry, the rates of mental illness are far worse than in society as a whole.

Are You a Photographer Struggling With Your Mental Health? If So, You Are Not Alone.

One in four people will experience mental health problems of some kind each year. Yet, two thirds of people won’t get help, despite their being (varying levels of) help available. Here in the UK, mental health services are massively underfunded, and support organizations are stretched to breaking points.

Jessica McGovern, Pet Photographer of the Year 2020, talks openly about mental wellbeing in the photographic industry.

Top Photographer Speaks Out About Mental Wellbeing

Early in March, The Photography Show in the UK was held online. An array of talented photographers from around the world gave talks. One of the most compelling was from the 2020 Pet Photographer of the Year, Jessica McGovern.

What made Jessica’s talk outstanding was not her award-winning pet portrait photography, but her deep concern about the high levels of mental health issues within the photographic industry. Although it is more widely talked about now, mental illness is still a taboo subject, but these barriers are being broken down. It’s heroes like Jessica who are helping to bulldoze those barriers, and she spoke openly about her own struggles with her mental wellbeing.

Because Jessica is so open about her own mental health challenges, she has become an unofficial helpline, listening and giving support to photographers who contact her. Hundreds of photographers from around the world get in touch, relating their stories, speaking of their own issues, and sometimes asking for help. Some are in crisis situations, so she sometimes takes urgent action to prevent people from harming themselves, even calling mental health services for emergency intervention in Mexico. That must be a huge responsibility.

Jessica conducted a survey amongst her photographic community. She was shocked by the results and so shared them with the Master Photographers Association (MPA). Then, in 2020, Jessica and the MPA, along with Loxley Colour, and 3XM, and a few other organizations, teamed up to research the prevalence of people within the industry suffering from Common Mental Disorder (CMD) symptoms. They surveyed 500 people working in the photographic industry. The results were disturbing.

Worrying Numbers in Our Industry

More than 50% of those questioned were affected and struggling with their mental health, more than double the rate of the general population. This had increased by 4% during 2020. Probably most shocking was that working photographers have more than three times the prevalence of Common Mental Disorder symptoms compared to the rest of the UK population. Furthermore, 39% of those who earn money from photography are affected in their daily life by mental illness symptoms. Again, more than double the amount among the UK adult population.

Although the industry is considered good at providing photographic learning by 87% of those surveyed, and 62% thought it was good at providing business learning, only 33% thought it was good at supporting mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, these figures showed that every subgroup (gender, age, geographic location, etc.) rated equally the industry’s support for mental health and wellbeing as being poor.

"Does the photographic industry offer enough support in Mental Health and Wellbeing, Photographic Learning, and Business Learning?"

What Impacts Your Mental Health?

In response to the question about what negatively impacts mental health and wellbeing, the highest single factor, cited by 37% of respondents,  was "stress and pressures." This included customer issues, financial uncertainty, generalized stress, and social media comparisons. The other factors were social isolation and self-esteem: both had just over 10% responding that they had their mental health negatively affected by these. Work-life balance scored 5%. Other miscellaneous factors affected around 12% of others.

Breaking Free

The MPA is producing a report to improve the situation for everyone, which should be published soon. Let’s hope the industry as a whole acts upon it. However, Jessica asks us to think about what we can do to protect and improve our own mental wellbeing:

It’s easy to hope that somebody else will solve and fix these problems, and although the industry does have some changes that I hope are made, the only person who can make changes in our own lives is us.

How We Can Help Ourselves

Jessica spoke about strategies that may help us to improve our mental wellbeing both within photography and in our daily lives.

To avoid social isolation, she finds that having a challenging, non-photographic offline social activity is important. She takes part in one of these at least once a week. Within photography, she recommends joining a social photographic community that focuses on member activities and community first.

For tackling stressors, Jessica says that outside photography, we should identify and set boundaries and so gain awareness of where we spend our energy resources; learning to say “no” is important. Likewise, within our photographic lives, we should identify stressors and stress patterns. Writing those down can really help us to identify and manage them. We should then try to eliminate them by delegating to others or creating a plan to manage them.

Self-esteem and self-worth can be damaged or supported by “external validation”; hearing that you are doing well from people that matter is important to us and getting negative comments is damaging. The latter ultimately leads to negative-self talk, telling oneself that we are not good enough. Internal validation is telling yourself and believing that you are enough. If you need support in this area, Jessica highly recommends you speak to a psychotherapist or clinical psychologist to help you make positive changes.

Jessica believes that we create what she calls “self-esteem chasms.” For her, it was social media groups. We have probably all found online forums that are toxic and make us feel bad about ourselves. Leave those and instead find alternatives that give us what you need without causing mental harm. If looking for inspiration or community, bypass those negative Facebook groups and find them elsewhere. The important thing is to make ourselves happy. Cutting these chasms out of our lives is a step to achieving that.

With work/life balance, she suggests we assess where the split is between those two currently. Then, identify areas in either arena that you can remove to make life better for yourself. Look for aspects of your work that wear you down and create stress. Just like with other stressors, write them down and identify which you can eliminate or delegate. If you cannot do this, make a plan to manage them.

Are You Struggling?

If you are struggling now, please don’t suffer alone. Do contact your doctor or Google “mental health organization near me” to find local support. Alternatively, speak with a friend and ask them to assist you in finding help.

Also, please remember to be kind in your words to others.

Next time, I will have a discussion with Jessica about the areas of being a professional photographer that impact her mental health.

Images and slides used with the kind permission of Jessica McGovern. Jessica's portrait courtesy of Johanna Charlton of Wildair Portraits.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Mental health issues are by no means limited to, or appreciably greater than, the photo community.
A real driver of mental health issues and depression is stress exacerbated by the financial impact of the pandemic.
As photographers are generally in a business that is challenging at best this is zero surprise.
Add to that the enormous growth in those who wish to make a living in the field that requires a LOT of practice and patience it is no surprise that people are freaking out.
It is not helped by the scores of "pros" flogging classes, ebooks and the like promising success "secrets" that turn out to be generic tripe.
This is a hard field. Success comes to those who cannot be dissuaded fro their goal.
Just like so many other things.

I agree it's hard work, and it takes time and dedication to get the rewards. Most of the other professional photographers I know also have a second form of income. It's not an industry to step into lightly. Interestingly, I understand that the survey showed that the increased rate of mental illness was right across the industry and not just self-employed photographers. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Interesting article. I think all of us suffer from this pandemic one way or another. On the flip side I think that photography can be very therapeutic. I can see that on all my recent sessions. People just starving to interact with each other. I have never seen that before. On the top of that instead of watching Netflix start shooting some landscape to connect with nature to calm your mind and that can be the best antidepressant you can possibly get..

Thanks for replying Rafal. I absolutely agree, and I am going to be touching on that in a future article in this series.I was out this morning photographing the sunrise behind an island out to sea, just off the coast from where I live. The creative process is cathartic, and I felt calm and relaxed after my hour with my cameras.

Very interesting, I've never really thought of mental health issues in the context of photography, but I think it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole if you try to control or plan everything or don't take the competitive part of the sphere well. It's not even about the pandemic since photography was not the first sphere hurt by it and it's certainly not the last, it's more about one's perception. It's easy to get yourself cornered by constantly comparing your works to the works of other people or trying to learn as many Photoworks tools as possible at once and then get angry with yourself for 'falling behind', you got the gist. Sometimes one just needs to step back from the whole race of constant challenge, but it's a hard decision to make.

You are absolutely right, Catherine. On the bright side, photography can help heal because it ticks all the boxes for improving mental wellbeing. Thank you for commenting on my piece, I am glad you found it interesting.

If you are trying to feed yourself with your own business, it is extremely stressful. Whenever someone asks me what classes they need to take to become a professional photographer my answer is always the same, business. You can always teach yourself photography. Not requiring classes in business is the biggest failure of my university education in photography. What business can you think of that the bulk of the equipment is bought by people who do not make a living with the equipment? The range and scope of the field are as immense as the people with talent who do not make a living at it. And the most popular areas nature and women have only a few rock stars and thousands of dreamers. These are only a sliver of the industry, but more than likely drive equipment sales. I have done contract work for successful photography businesses where the owners had sales backgrounds or only started it because they saw possibilities of income, not as a creative outlet. Many professional photographers work for organizations that simply need professional photographers, ignored but a living. The exception being photo-journalism of conflict which does affect you mentally until you learn to process it. Most of my income has come from being a medical photographer. The economic stability has allowed me to pursue extreme stress from the mujahideen to the mafia. And to create images to express my thoughts and feelings for the sheer joy of creating, which reduces my stress, which is a normal part of living.

Thanks for commenting Michael. The research showed raised levels of Common Mental Disorder was right across the industry, so included not just the self-employed photographers but employees of photography retailers, studio workers, press photographers and so on. The sample was over 500, to be statistically significant. I absolutely agree that it is tough working for yourself and earning an income from this field - I do it but top up my income with website design and development, and writing; those have been lifesavers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, I find working for myself far less stressful than working for unappreciative employers, which I did my fair share of over the years. But, you are right that it is the business management side of running any business that can be the most stressful and my advice would be to equip oneself for that before taking the plunge.

I started doing a website in the late '90s just gave up my last customer. I worked a short time at a daily newspaper and had to write never been confident at it until this last year. Even though my education was at Kent State University in the School of Journalism 1976-80. I remember the last time I was really depressed was in 1983. Photographing forms of homelessness for 18 years, conflict photography, being a medical photographer, and most importantly my faith has provided me frames of reference to simply be grateful every day. I actually have very little faith in the mental health profession as they create issues out of normal parts of life.

Believe you meant to state "very little faith" in the last sentence; and I thoroughly agree with that comment. Comparing the "Greatest Generation" to the present I feel the single-most debilitating factor in western society's psychological healthiness is the incessant approved and nurtured culture of victimhood. Even the link to the description of CMD brings up an explanation that almost anyone could roll themselves into; I imagine the most adjusted individual, taking a checkbox test to determine their status, would come away with an "I'm unwell" result.

Thanks corrected it. I think you are dead on with victimhood, which is the most sought position in the world today.

Hi Peter, thanks for joining in the conversation.

The group most at risk from suicide is middle-aged white men: Men die by suicide 3.63x more often than women.

The highest recorded rate ever for men in the USA was 30.3 per 100,000 in 1934, Which would have been people of the "Greatest Generation". However, the suicide rate for men in the USA today is steadily rising. Between 2016 and 2019 there was a 25% increase in suicides.

I understand that the survey carried out amongst employees of the photographic industry in the UK was matched against a control group of the general population. The rate was significantly higher amongst employees than the rate of the wider public. Unless I misunderstood your point, I am not entirely sure that your argument that concludes that everyone would come away with the "I'm unwell" holds up as the same result would otherwise be seen in the general population.

Nevertheless, 8-million people per year worldwide die because of their low mental health. Each death is devastating to the family and friends of those who die, and often die needlessly. By raising awareness and helping those who are suffering with support and compassion has to be a good thing.

People who are more artistic seem to be more emotional in general, so it makes sense. I've been dealing with depression long before I touched a camera lol.

Hi and thank you so much for joining in with the conversation. That's an interesting point of discussion I may well come back to in another article. I believe there is research going into this now, trying to work out if there really is a link between creativity and mental health as much of the evidence is anecdotal.

One in four people here in the UK will suffer with their mental health in any given year, that's a huge number.

Depression is truly horrible. I hope you are okay at the moment. Keep safe and do ask for help when you need it.