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Powerful Photographs Saving Lives: Fighting Mental Illness One Picture At A Time (PHOTOS)

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By Mary Alice Stephenson

Some of the most beautiful, moving photographs I've seen are not from the pages of fashion magazines or photography books or hung in museums. They are images from BrokenLightCollective.com, an online photography site for people living with or affected by mental illness. It's a virtual gallery where photographers of all levels can display their work as well as inspire one another to keep creating despite the dark, scary places in which they may find themselves. The site is fighting mental illness and saving lives one photograph at a time.

Danielle Hark is the creator and curator of BrokenLightCollective.com. Hark started Broken Light Collective in March of 2012, in the midst of her depression, because she wanted to encourage other people who might be going through difficult times to keep creating, sharing and supporting each other. Now, Broken Light has become a community of over 10,000 contributors from 150 countries. It has become a toll for inspiration, support and healing as well as visual proof that people suffering mental illness are not alone. Hark and I talked about her personal battle with depression and how Broken Light has made a difference in so many lives, especially her own:

GLAM4GOOD: When did you know you suffered from depression?

DH: I've suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks on and off throughout my life. When I was a child, I could always put on a smile but often felt sadness underneath. I had trouble relating to other kids and was teased and bullied. When I really started noticing the depression and how different I was from other people was when I was in high school. I was formally diagnosed as having mental illness when I was in college because my symptoms started getting in the way of my functioning. My moods became more and more extreme and harder to control. I wasn't taking care of myself or getting the help I needed. That started the cycle of spiraling out of control and then crashing down. A cycle that has continued throughout my life as an adult.

GLAM4GOOD: What is it about photography that moves you, and why did you decide to create Broken Light Collective?

DH: When I was in the deepest darkness of my depression, my therapist at the time encouraged me to take photos daily, even if I couldn't do anything else. She knew I had enjoyed photography in the past. So I tried. When I couldn't get up, I would take a picture of my messy nightstand or my feet tangled in my sheets. When I didn't have my camera, I would use the camera on my phone. Soon, I was taking pictures around the house, and eventually I got out the door. I discovered that photography could be used therapeutically. It was a way for me to express what was going on inside when I couldn't express it in words -- and to connect to my therapist when I was shutting everyone out. Most importantly, it became a mindfulness tool and helped me stay present instead of lost in my hurricane of negative thoughts. That has helped me to this day.

GLAM4GOOD: What would you say to people who are battling mental illness and losing hope?

DH: I would say… You are not alone. I empathize. There are people out there who are going through similar things right now, and even more people who have been there and have gotten through it. You will get through it too, and hopefully soon. Stay strong, stay safe and hang on! Focus on the Light, no matter how dark things may seem. No matter how broken you feel. I know it's hard. Let others help you. And remember to be kind to yourself. It's so easy to spiral into negative self thoughts which can turn bad fast. Try instead to find something small that you can do each day (especially in those darkest moments) that gives you joy. A way for you to express yourself, whether that is through photography like me, collaging, or even coloring in a coloring book. It is the process of creating and doing something you enjoy, and not the finished product that matters. It will help you stay distracted from your thoughts, present and inspired. Above all, believe in yourself. You are worthy.

GLAM4GOOD: How has creating Broken Light Collective helped you?

DH: Broken Light Collective has changed my life. I am passionate about the Collective not only as someone who curates it, but also as a viewer/fan of the work, and someone who uses it therapeutically. It's really fun to share work on the site and see all of the "likes" and comments, especially on a tough day. It makes me feel encouraged, supported and less alone. Those sentiments have been echoed by many of the other Broken Light contributors who have also found the Collective to be life-changing. With all of the treatments I have undergone, photography, mindfulness, and helping other people have proven to be some of the most helpful tools in my recovery. As I move forward, I will continue to work on growing the Collective to help more and more people affected by mental illness and myself along the way.

GLAM4GOOD: How has this site saved lives?

DH: Many Broken Light contributors turn to photography (in addition to traditional treatment) when they are feeling low, hopeless, injurious or even suicidal. The Broken Light Collective site helps save lives in three ways -- by encouraging people to take photos instead of engaging in self-destructive behavior; by allowing people to share their work, which provides them with positive feedback and self-confidence; and by being a place where people can view photos by others who may be going through something similar. Simply by clicking on the site, people say they feel understood and inspired, which in itself can be life-changing. I personally attribute photography, along with doctors and meds, to saving my life on more than one occasion. When I was at my lowest and thought I couldn’t possibly go on, I started taking photos. If I had let the negative thoughts continue, I might not be here. Now, when I start to feel the darkness creep in, or I feel like I’m losing control, I pull out my camera, and the process of taking photos actually changes my trajectory and prevents me from getting to such low lows. Broken Light has helped save people’s lives, and it has saved my own.

Here is a collection of some of our favorite pictures from BrokenLightCollective.com as well as the inspiring stories about the photographers who took them.

Between
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com contributor Fleur Alston, a 42-year-old mother whose daughter suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. It makes her feel helpless as a parent to see her daughter suffer from very low self-esteem brought on by a severe bout of bullying she encountered when she was younger. Alston wants to help her daughter see how beautiful she is through her photography.

Siren In The Woods
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com contributor Samantha Pugsley, a 24-year-old conceptual fine art photographer from Charlotte, N.C.. She first picked up a camera during her junior year of college. This was right around the time when she was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Things that were once easy became impossible for her. Getting dressed in the morning, shopping at the grocery story, driving her car… just living, was a panic attack waiting to happen. Photography helped her heal. With her camera she could start a conversation about what was going on in her head. She could say things with her images that she didn’t know how to say out loud. She still struggles with anxiety but making art helps her talk about it and manage it. She started a 365 photography project to ensure that she’d be doing what brings her joy every single day. She has noticed that her anxiety level is much lower if she spends time with her camera every day.

Voices In My Head
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com contributor Teija, a 36-year-old woman from Finland. She suffered from a severe depressive episode at the age of 25, which turned into psychosis and led to a three month hospitalization. Fortunately, she got better quite quickly and got her life back on track. She found love after getting out of the hospital. Her life changed drastically when her partner was paralyzed in December of 2012. It has been hard ever since. They are both fighting to keep from getting too depressed. Life goes on and they try to stay strong. She has been interested in photography for many years, but began actively exploring it over the last four years. Before her partner’s accident, she had made up her mind to quit her day job to pursue being a photographer. Now she is working on making her dream a reality.

Whirlwind Of Emotions
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com contributor Shelby Hall, a 22-year-old mother from Dallas, Texas. Before her boys were born, she had a difficult relationship with her now fiancé, in part due to his struggles with drug addiction. She suffered from depression through much of their early relationship as a result of being unable to cope. Loving someone with addiction can feel hopeless at times. She felt lost and unsure about who she was and who she was trying to be. During that rough time in her life she found herself comforted and consoled by her photography. Hall’s fiancé is now two years sober, and they are wonderfully happy parents. She loves having her photos to look back on. They read like a timeline and you can see the progressions and pitfalls through them all. They also serve as a reminder of how much stronger she and her fiancé are today.

Cocoon
mental illness photography
Photo taken by Micaela Brookman from Los Angeles, Calif. Brookman is a young model and aspiring photographer. Her work is greatly influenced by Salvador Dali and Richard Avedon. When Brookman was 7 years old she lost her mother to depression and mental illness.

Into The Mist
mental illness photography
Photo taken by first-time contributor Rachael Talibart, a photographer based in Surrey, England. She has always enjoyed photography, but when she started to suffer chronic pain it became more than a hobby/occupation. Taking photographs became a way for her to cope with her pain. She used it as a mindfulness tool, a way of focusing on the now, and on things outside herself instead of pain or other troubles. When she is taking a picture, she is thinking only of what she is seeing and making. This allows her to notice things she might otherwise have missed, and those things not only distract from pain but lead to other things, and so the creativity snowballs.

Upside Down World
mental illness photography
Photo taken by Christina, who has experienced awful anxiety, often due to stress and/or insomnia. She also gets irritated very easily and becomes anxious in situations that are uncomfortable to her, like large groups of people. She is 19 years old and has been studying photography throughout her teenage years. The lyric that inspired this photo is from “Sweet About Me” by Gabriella Cilmi: “Tell you something that I’ve found, that the world's a better place when it’s upside down, boy.”

Escape
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com founder Danielle Hark, who suffers from a mood disorder that includes severe depression, anxiety, agoraphobia and more. Depression had left Hark treading the waters of a murky sea for a long time. Thankfully, she is starting to emerge and even went to a beach recently and a pool. Instead of focusing on intrusive negative thoughts, she tried to focus on the calming nature of the water, and the vast beauty and potential of the world.

Levitation: A Release From Abuse
mental illness photography
Photo taken by BrokenLightCollective.com contributor Carrie Hilgert, a 36-year-old photographer and self portrait artist from Northeast Kansas. After venturing into digital photography, she became interested in documenting her life with self portraits. This became particularly helpful when her life started to fall apart due to depression. All her other creative outlets left her, but she could always process her very dark feelings with self portraits. While she is doing much better now, she maintains compassion for those going through these hard things and hopes that her photography can give an honest insight into something that makes most people feel very isolated and alone. Hilgert took this photo during October 2012 to commemorate her new life and release from any and all abuse that she has been through in her life.

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