On Translating Anxiety and Depression Into Effective Imagery

All images by Jonathan Higbee. Used with permission.

“For ‘Akathisia,’ my self portrait series named after a side-effect of SSRI withdrawal, the fact that there are many days where it’s emotionally impossible for me to leave the apartment into part of the series.” says photographer Jonathan Higbee. “All of the series so far has been shot in my NYC apartment, which is not only appropriate for the project — it forces me to be more creative considering the limited space, lighting challenges and immutable background.”

Jon’s story is one of the more incredible ones I feel I’ve brought to you all in a while. He struggled with depression and anxiety, then was medicated for it, and then tried to wean himself off of the treatment with the help of a medical team. The result for him is a very difficult one that he’s learned how to translate into images.

But he hasn’t only done this with surreal and conceptual work, his photograph is the cover of the  World Street Photography Awards 2016 book just went up for pre-order. At the moment though, he’s currently working on his Akathisia series; and has a lot to say about its creation.

Phoblographer: What makes you want to create photos? What’s the motivation?

Jon: The main driving force behind my passion for creating photography is the escape from a constant buzz of anxiety in my mind that all steps of the photographic process so thankfully alleviates. I’ve been passionate about telling stories, about unapologetically expressing myself, for as long as I can remember.

The lifelong passion combined with the zen-like effect on my worrywart mind is what motivates me everyday to either plan, execute or process a conceptual photo shoot, or pick up a camera and walk the streets of NYC, remaining present in the moment and hoping to stumble upon a story worth sharing. It’s the best kind of therapy, and as an added bonus, there’s a chance the work we create can help others, too.

Phoblographer: Tell us about how the mental stuff exactly gives you ideas? IE: getting off of meds; where do the ideas generally come from?

Jon: Living with daily anxiety and panic is what typically helps me generate ideas, whether it’s my studio or street work. But lately, horrific withdrawals from anti-depressants have taken center stage and demanded attention.

“It’s the best kind of therapy, and as an added bonus, there’s a chance the work we create can help others, too.”

I’ve taken Lexapro (a SSRI anti-depressant) since 2012 to treat clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD and panic attack disorder. I can’t understate how much this drug improved — maybe even saved — my life. But as my mood thankfully stabilized, the side effects of being on the drug became too much of a burden to continue. So my medical team and I decided to end the Lexapro treatment. It’s such a powerful drug and I had been on it for so long, so I have had to taper my use, drawing out the very painful quitting process.

The side effects of taking increasingly smaller doses of the SSRI have been intense, to say the least. Within a week of my first dose cut major depression and anxiety rushed back to me like it was 2012. I descended into a dark place I never thought I’d have to struggle through again. The only thing different about this time (aside from it being a result of SSRI withdrawal rather than natural brain chemistry) was that I had a tool to help me emerge from depression: photography.

On the days I couldn’t get out of bed because the withdrawals were too fierce, I worked hard to channel my fear into a photography project. I worked through the unsettling feelings and immense discomfort by trying to focus on expressing them in visual art.

For example: I’m terrified of having to speak to people today, how can I convey this complicated feeling in a photograph? It was certainly a challenge to stay focused and turn my disabling emotion into photography, but it made an unbelievable difference. Soon, I was well enough to get out of bed and start realizing the ideas I’d come up with during the despondency in my apartment studio. Processing this withdrawal experience — which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy — through art gave me new perspective and disarmed how terrified I felt about what I was going through.

It was a revelation. Though the worst of that period of withdrawal has subsided, I’m still not finished fully tapering off Lexapro. The next dose cut is the last. I’m not exactly stoked, but a part of me is looking forward to turning lemons into kick-ass photography.

Phoblographer: So how do you go about doing this? Is there story boarding? Do you write things down? Do you look for props? Do you scout locations?

Jon: I don’t discriminate when it comes to creative methodology. My best creative photography ideas come to me when I’m trying to fall asleep. As I lie there thinking about an experience I had that day or something I hope to do the next or even my current mood, a basic scene will flash in my mind unexpectedly. I’ll follow it and explore the idea, and if it’s strong enough, I’ll get out of bed and play around with story boarding, the following day’s meetings be damned.

“On the days I couldn’t get out of bed because the withdrawals were too fierce, I worked hard to channel my fear into a photography project. I worked through the unsettling feelings and immense discomfort by trying to focus on expressing them in visual art.”

For ideas that are more vague, I have a few notebooks (both digital and analog) where I deposit any interesting thoughts that I may want to flesh out later. I review those regularly to see what sticks out at the time/mood I’m reading them, and then move to story board or directly into arranging a scene in my home studio.

I’m a sucker for vintage/antique stores in ways unrelated to photography, but once in awhile I’ll come across a prop at a shop and immediately envision an entire scene based around it. It’s kind of spooky. My photog friends call me a precog. The same sort of thing happens with my most popular street photography shots: I’ll turn the corner and find an unexpected architectural shape, or colored wall, or intersection of buildings, whatever, and immediately envision the potential when you factor in humans walking by or interacting with it.

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For “Akathisia,” my self portrait series named after a side-effect of SSRI withdrawal, the fact that there are many days where it’s emotionally impossible for me to leave the apartment into part of the series. All of the series so far has been shot in my NYC apartment, which is not only appropriate for the project — it forces me to be more creative considering the limited space, lighting challenges and immutable background.

Phoblographer: How do you think all this really helps to define who you are as a photographer? For example, when you go around pitching these projects, what do you say? How do you show them that these are such truly unique ideas that are your experiences and creative vision?

Jon: Stigma of mental illness persists in society (even in the art community). Obviously there’s some sort of spiritual connection between artists and these kind of experiences, but it’s only gradually becoming something people are comfortable being frank about. I’m happy to step in and join those who are okay with their work being associated with this kind of stuff. Photographers working with depression and anxiety might be more common these days, but I think I’ve found a voice in creative photography with my candid conversation about antidepressants. Unfortunately, we all know how many Americans take these drugs. Sure, life on them and trying to get off might not be so unique, but my “Akathisia” series is, and almost everyone can relate to it in some way.

If the person I’m pitching to hasn’t rolled their eyes and ended the meeting early after that woe-is-me spiel, lol, I give them some space to process the arrangement of the photos in this particular project and excitedly wait to hear what they think it all means. In a lot of ways, pitching and showing what I have of this project so far has been wonderful (and free!) therapy. The differing perspectives I’ve been given when someone explains why they  think I made a certain creative decision has helped me on my journey.

Phoblographer: When do you think you got really serious into creating photos vs capturing them (like I’ve been talking about)? How have you progressed and evolved as an artist?

Jon: I worked as a staff contributor for a national (U.S.) magazine that had the tiniest of budgets (as they all seem to have these days). After a few years, the editor-in-chief took a huge risk on me by assigning me a dream story: a travel feature on New Zealand. Considering the tight budget, I was both the writer and photographer, which was fine with me since I dreamed of being a travel photographer anyway.

“In a lot of ways, pitching and showing what I have of this project so far has been wonderful (and free!) therapy.”

Up until that assignment, I’d say I was merely capturing photos. My interest in photography was there (had been since I was given my first camera — a Polaroid 600 — when I was 8) but I thought, like most people, that what I produced was just fine. Being given the chance to shoot travel for a national publication, however, was a wake-up call. The status-quo wouldn’t cut it. I actually wanted to be proud of my photography for once, so I did workshops, took classes, joined local clubs and did a lot of soul-searching before the trip. That travel feature might not have been the moment when the creativity began showing in my photography (that takes a while to come through), but it was when I became conscious of the difference.

Phoblographer: How do you see yourself progressing? Like, if we’re looking at Jon in a year, where is he as an artist. How has he gotten there? How have your creative ability been able to make you get there?

Jon: I see myself progressing into more elaborate studio scenes, and hopefully creating conceptual photography outdoors. Both interest me. But elaboration is a challenge. Less is more. Questions rather than answers, is one of my cardinal rules (though nothing unique to me). Every single part of a scene is very deliberate and painstakingly considered. It’s going to take more experience and hard work to be able to add extra layers to a scene, but I’m in no rush. I’m still cultivating an ability to create mystery that leaves the viewer lingering just a little longer, so I really need to be wary about putting too much in the frame. It’s a delicate balancing act, and continuing to explore this project as well as meeting and having conversations with other conceptual photographers is going to get me there.

Phoblographer: How important do you think it is for us as photographers that do this for commercial reasons to really emphasize our creativity?

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Jon: As I mentioned above, I worked at a national magazine. As my title got bumped up along the editorial chain, I started helping review photographer submissions, of which there were hundreds a month. I can’t tell you how happy a really creative photograph in a beauty, fashion or product shot will make media editors.  

It’s absolutely fundamental that photographers working on commercial projects emphasize their creativity. How else do you stick out among the (very competitive) crowd? Not only will it ward off burnout, it can also help one grow in often surprising ways. And, hey, the joy that experiencing a unique photograph brings to whoever sees it is an added bonus.

Phoblographer: What frustrates you about the creative process? What do you love about it? What do you find most difficult?

Jon: I’m sure a lot of photographers can relate to this: I find myself frustrated and challenged by an unyielding quest for perfection. There is a point when a work is done and shouldn’t be overcooked, but you’ll always find something that you insist needs to be changed, you know? It doesn’t have to be like that (I hear), and finding peace with a photograph that’s already been shared or displayed or hung or purchased as a print is difficult for me. I constantly worry (regardless of Lexapro) about the state of my “finished” work, but my love for creating it and expressing myself makes it worth it.

Phoblographer: How do you get out of creative ruts?

Jon: It took me years to figure out, but guilt and pressure are the two absolute worst mindsets one can be in during times where creativity and motivation are lacking. I was actually very recently in a rut, right after the Orlando tragedy. Typically, creating photography helps me process and express very difficult feelings. But for about a week I wanted nothing to do with it.

“I constantly worry (regardless of Lexapro) about the state of my “finished” work, but my love for creating it and expressing myself makes it worth it.”

When this disinterest occurred in years past, I’d freak out, thinking the passionate fire had been extinguished and would never return, worrying that something was wrong with me or I was entering a bout with depression again. Now, however, I see it as an opportunity, as a cleanse of sorts. My mind is constantly story-boarding photos, but during a rut it gets a break and an opportunity to recharge. In order to let that regeneration happen, I must refuse to guilt myself into working and refuse to force myself to make a picture. Instead, I distract myself with something else entirely (usually the gym or movies or take a road trip) and wait for my motivation and creativity to return. Since I’ve started treating ruts this way, they now are more infrequent, last less time — and actually welcome. This might not be an ideal approach to a commercial photographer on tighter deadlines, but I think looking at these ruts in a different “glass is half full” mindset still might help.

“It took me years to figure out, but guilt and pressure are the two absolute worst mindsets one can be in during times where creativity and motivation are lacking.”