UK based photographer Stewart Barker has written a piece on his own experiences with mental health and how getting out and taking landscape photos helped him. We hope Stewart’s story might inspire you to be open about your own mental health, it is important that we break down the barrier to talking about this difficult but vitally important subject.
To be atop the highest peak, while staring down a bottomless ravine. This is just one of countless ways to describe living a life with mental health conditions. But for me, it is an apt metaphor. In my darkest days, photography and a love of the outdoors have both been my saviour.
As a student, I moved from my home city of York, sat in a flat (but beautiful) river valley, to Sheffield, the city built on seven hills. With a proud industrial heritage, and a gateway to the astoundingly beautiful Peak District National Park, Sheffield’s people are creative through and through. But me? I turned my skills in life to Science, in particular Biology.
Studying Biology at university was the realisation of a lifetime ambition, but a dream that began to take it’s toll on my health. First came the insomnia. I gained the unwanted ability to be able to stay awake until 4 or 5 in the morning, of course resulting in not getting up until sometimes 3 pm the following afternoon. Then due to increasing pressures, and no doubt a lack of sleep, I started to succumb to periods of depression, especially over the winter, and unhealthy levels of anxiety.
I realise in hindsight, and after a lot of soul searching, that the anxiety and depression are long-standing conditions, simmering under the surface, slowly building up pressure, and were just waiting for the right trigger to set them off.
I battled my way until the end of my four year degree, taking on more and more work. If I kept my mind busy, I wouldn’t have time to get anxious or feel depressed. But it was unsustainable. A month or so after finishing university, suddenly stopping all that work caught up with me. I fell foul of my worst bout of anxiety and depression yet. It’s one that affects me to this day, but the immediate effects were a rapid decline in bodyweight, and reclusive behaviour. The anxiety was physically crippling – I couldn’t eat; and the depression filled me with a sense of dread and doom.
That autumn after weeks of medication and counselling, though still shaky, I embarked on studying for a PhD. Although at first, the work gave me a purpose again, and the challenge kept my mind busy, I wasn’t getting any better. Under the surface, I could feel the tension building again, I noticed the resurgence of old bad habits.
So I decided to make a change. To improve my quality of life. I had starved myself of personal time, to relax, and enjoy life. Photography had always been an interest of mine, from having disposable cameras in my childhood, to owning a smartphone with a reasonably good camera at the time. I had often dreamed of being a professional landscape or wildlife photographer. And I had always enjoyed being outdoors, walking and exploring, but I had barely ventured into the nearby Peak District.
Combining these two passions, I got some boots and a good coat, grabbed my smartphone, and headed out into the Peak District.
One of the first walks I remember going on was up a small but particularly popular hill near Castleton, called Mam Tor. It’s popularity is likely due in part to it’s ease of accessibility – although the peak is 517 metres above sea level, the ascent is much smaller, thanks to a conveniently placed car park part way up. Despite this, and the well laid stone steps, I still found the climb a challenge.
A lot of the weight I had lost while being ill was from my legs, and the loss of muscle mass was telling, as my legs burned, and joints ached. But me and my partner reached the top, and then realised the other reason the walk is so popular. The summit commands amazing views in almost every direction. And that’s when, heart-pounding, legs weak, I took out my phone and started taking landscape photos. Although still preoccupied with other things, the feeling of achievement was unmistakeable. I was hooked.
Several months later, post-Christmas, things were looking up so I bought myself my first camera, a Sony A5000. I had come off my medication and stopped going to regular counselling. Slowly but surely, I was getting better, both mentally and physically. To celebrate, I took my partner on a surprise trip to the Lake District. It was our first trip there as a couple, but a childhood favourite for me.
Over a hearty Cumbrian breakfast, we discussed what we wanted to do that day, and I mentioned that I had always wanted to climb a ‘proper’ mountain. The night before, after consulting a map and some walking guides, I decided the one I wanted to climb was Helvellyn, standing at 950 metres. My partner looked at me apprehensively, but always up for an adventure, and willing to whole-heartedly support me, she happily agreed.
We parked the car, and stood at the base of Helvellyn. I had driven past it many times, and it looked big, but it is no comparison to standing there and gazing up. Looking in awe at the snow dusted summit, we set off on our ascent. Although I had come a long way since climbing Mam Tor, It was tough. The only advantage to having to take so many breaks, was that it gave me the opportunity to turn around, and admire the view through my new camera.
I was torn between the intense struggle of the climb, and the sheer glee of being able to capture the breath-taking views. On more than one occasion, we almost gave up, but we kept pushing on. We thought we reached the summit too, but then the real summit reared its head in the distance.
Finally, we made it to the top. While it was a balmy, sunny day at the base, at the summit the wind blew nearly 30mph, taking the temperature well below freezing. Still catching my breath, with the cold biting at my face, we stood there, amazed. The wind, the temperature, nor the fatigue could stop a huge smile erupting on my face. I got my camera out, and it performed admirably. I didn’t stop smiling until we started our descent back to the car. Despite what I had been through, the effect it had on my mental and physical health, I had conquered my flaws and my fears, and in doing so, also conquered one of the highest peaks in England.
But more than that, it was the realisation of a dream. The beginning of a journey into photography that I am still on. It empowered me. It gave me the confidence to walk away from my PhD later that year, to take control of my life and my own health. It gives me the confidence to this day to continue fighting depression and anxiety.
I must have taken nearly a thousand photos that day. We got back to our hotel, and while relishing a hot shower to soothe my aching muscles, I had that same smile on my face. We had done it. I had done it.
We would like to extend an enormous thank you to Stewart for writing a brilliant article and sharing his story. Photography has helped Stewart and it may be able to help you, it all starts with discourse and talking about your mental health.