Shooting in the Shadows: 3 Ways I Use My Art to Cope with Depression and Anxiety
All photography by the amazingly talented and beautiful Meri Daugherty
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat down to write this little chunk of my heart only to get emotionally overwhelmed and exhausted and step away, putting it off to think a little more, dig a little deeper, and try to find words that feel far away.
Art (and the creation of it) are so conceptual and subjective that finding words to specify the process feels like a Herculean task. But, while it may feel close to impossible, I really believe it is necessary in order to to empower female artists to pour their souls into their work in order to reach a new level of knowing and fulfillment. Our journeys, in life and art, are full of shadows--some dance in the distance outside our periphery and some become oppressive weights that suffocate us. Those shadow can loom threateningly or they can feel benign.
Honestly, though, regardless of the shadows, I have found that the best way to deal with it is to actually, in fact, deal with them. It looks different for everyone and can vary so much from day to day, but one of my favorite ways to expose these shadows to light is by using them in my photography (puns intended). By putting these darks spots out into the light, I’m usually able to simply release them. No shame or angst, just harnessed and empowering vulnerability.
For as long as I can remember I have dealt with bouts of depression and anxiety.
Neither of those is uncommon, but my brand is built upon photographing really intimate and romantic portraits of couples. It feels weird to say, but every shoot i do harnesses the shadows of my depression and anxiety while maintaining the romance of my couples’ work. It is an intentional method that allows me to put more of myself into my work in a unique way. I create work that is different from most couple’s photographers. I create work that shows who I am in an intimate way. I create work that consistently allows me to know myself better. And I create work that fulfills me in a special way.
Each person is different and their shadows vary greatly, but I firmly believe that finding a way to use them in your work will greatly benefit each artist in a profound way. I have always believed that art is meant to say something. While it doesn’t (necessarily) have to take a strong political stance or be concrete, simply saying “here I am” or “this is who I am” is enough to be meaningful--to us and to others. We all have this constant paradoxical battle of our own light and dark. We frequently internalize the feelings and struggles we deem shameful, when instead, we should shine a light on them. We are all dealing with so much of the same things and putting them into our work connects us so much more to the art, to ourselves, and to each other. Work that resonates with us will resonate with other people. And that is pretty magical.
So, as I sit here with a second cup of coffee and a breakfast brownie, here are a few ways that can help you use your inner shadows to create more meaningful work.
I highly recommend actually writing your ideas out with pen and paper. Take several minutes to brainstorm for each prompt. Rather than stopping when you think you’re out of ideas, try to take a good five minutes to keep writing anything that comes to mind. There is so much power in writing your thoughts and feelings and keeping the pen moving even when you think you’re out of ideas. Oftentimes that is when your most hidden thoughts come to light.
Music is by far the most inspiring thing to me. I see photos when I hear it and, it moves me in a way that nothing else does. Many of my favorite photos have been inspired by specific songs. When you find a song that means something to you, consider the feeling of the song, the rhythm, the movement you associate with it, the setting you envision for it, any minute nuance that comes about when you listen to it. How can those things be brought into your work? What does that specific song say to you and how can you very intentionally use that in your photos?
Photography almost always comes down to light. In fact, I think you could make the argument that every form of art comes down to light in one way or another. The way you look at it and use it can mean a lot artistically and emotionally. As artists, we look to the light to create a certain mood. But each kind of light has its own emotional context for us as individuals and using it can allow us to harness new feelings in ways we might not have thought about before. Personally, I am always looking for the shadows. I know my connection to light and shadows and, therefore, find myself most at home when I’m playing with the literal shadows. They help give voice to my emotional shadows. What are the feelings you want to capture and how can you use different kinds of light or shadows to show that?
3| Colors (or lack thereof)
Colors have unique meanings and feelings associated with them. Use them intentionally in your work to create an emotional response. If you are feeling angry, try using red in really specific ways to get that frustration across. Feeling overwhelmed? Try creating a monochromatic piece. In fact, focusing your work around a color can help increase your creativity, too. I personally focus on black and white photography as it connects more for me emotionally. It also gives me more room to work with just connection between my subjects. I find this “limitation” really forces me to focus on what is important to me in ways that don’t quite work in full color photos.
It wasn’t until I stopped trying to make something pretty to other people and started doing the emotional work of putting myself into my photos that I started feeling more connected to the outcomes.
I like to think that it has taken my work to a higher level while also giving me more insight into who I am, both as an artist and a person. I have also found that putting more of my shadows into my work has created a new depth to my portfolio and the heart behind it. It makes a lot of sense if you consider that the contrast of light and dark is what creates the depth in any artwork. It is literally that change in light that gives the viewer perspective. That relationship is the very same in emotional work: the contrast in light emotions and shadowy ones create emotional depth.
I hope you read this and know that whatever shadows may occupy your mind, you aren’t ever alone in it. I hope you find a way to harness your own personal shadows in a way that means something to you, that introduces you to yourself in a new way, that can connect with other people.
Art and life are so hard sometimes, and living your life while trying to make meaningful art can be really, really hard.
Putting little bits of that struggle in your work can be hugely beneficial. It doesn’t need to be an all-consuming, explicitly stated theme. It can be as much or as little as you are comfortable with. But finding that place to show your shadows is empowering and vulnerable and beautiful in a really unique way that will allow you to connect more with yourself and your work.
(Please let me end this by saying: I am not a psychiatrist or mental health professional. I urge anyone dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness to see a mental health professional. And, while I have found my art to be therapeutic, it is not actual therapy. This is strictly my story.)
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Based an hour outside of Atlanta, Georgia, Meri Daugherty lives with her husband and their two redheaded daughters (and their crazy cat, Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell). She operates mostly in the North Georgia area but loves to travel for work and pleasure. In addition to working as a photographer and a mentor, she loves spending time hiking, adores the Harry Potter franchise, and is a french fry connoisseur.
She specializes in romantic photography, playing specifically with the connections between lovers, their chemistry, and the negative spaces that separate them. Her style shines in black and white, but is also breathtaking in her color photography.