Photography Helped Ian MacDonald Overcome the Darkness of PTSD

We speak to Ian MacDonald about his involvement with Fujifilm’s Create Forever Series.

“By the time I was twenty years into my career, the gaps in my armor started to reveal themselves,” says Ian MacDonald. “This is when I can recall experiencing the earliest signs of PTSD.” Ian is a multidisciplinary photographer who most aligns with street and travel photography. To say he has been on a journey is an understatement. Once a paramedic, Ian has seen things many of us hopefully never will. Because of his experience and dedication to helping others, Ian found himself having to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Always a creative, photography would act as a catalyst for his healing. It would help him to move out of the darkness and into a better place in life.

“…photography became the vehicle that allowed my ‘busy mind’ to be silent for a bit,” he tells The Phoblographer. As part of Fujifilm’s latest series, Create Forever, Ian has agreed to share his personal story and experience with PTSD. The relationship between mental health and creativity is something The Phoblographer continues to highlight and we were able to speak to Ian about his own mental health, balancing photography and life, and his upcoming book release.

Phoblographer: Hey, Ian! We have a lot to cover. I think it would be a great starting point if you would tell us how your relationship with photography first began, please.

IM: Thanks, I appreciate the opportunity. I have always been an artist and content creator in one form or another. I worked as a professional musician for eight years when I was younger, eventually segueing to work in the visual arts around 2002 or so when I completed a multi-media diploma and started doing web design. Many of the clients I worked with at the time would request photographs for their new websites (i.e. headshots, product imagery, etc), which led me into the world of photography.

I can still remember how excited I was to get my first digital camera, a three-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix point-and-shoot. Those humble first steps were really the beginning of what eventually became a full-time career as a photographer, though my work now is very different from what I did back then.

Phoblographer: During your career as a paramedic, how much time were you able to invest in your photography and how did you balance the two?

IM: Finding a good life balance has always been something that I have struggled with, primarily because there are so many things that I love to do. As a paramedic, I would work four 12 hour shifts in a row, followed by four days off, so most of my photography would happen during the downtime. When you also factor in spending time with my family, taking care of the household responsibilities, exercising, etc it made for an incredibly busy lifestyle. I loved it though, as I have never been somebody who could spend a day sitting on the couch.

Phoblographer: Was it always the goal to move into being a full time creative? What was your approach to achieving the goal?

IM: Initially, no, because I loved working as a paramedic as much as I loved working as an artist. Paramedicine is a noble profession, full of dedicated professionals who provide medical care in austere environments on a daily basis. I was proud of the work that I did, and proud to be part of a team that took care of people when they needed us the most. And, in addition to that wonderful career, I was also blessed to have my part-time life as a photographer. It really was the best of both worlds.

Because I didn’t need to run my photography as a full-time career initially, I was able to let it grow organically. I was shooting all of the time, but I also constantly took workshops to develop my craft. I have also always valued something that Chase Jarvis said many years ago, which was that we should: “Create. Share. Sustain”.

“I can remember responding to calls early in my career for things like major traumas, sexual assaults, pediatric deaths, etc and being told: “suck it up, you get paid to see things like that.”

Over time, as I continued to put myself and my work out there, I developed relationships in the industry like the one I have today with Fujifilm. There eventually came a tipping point where the photography business alone would have been enough to sustain me and my family, but I continued to follow both career paths for a little while longer because I loved everything that I was doing.

Phoblographer: You’ve spoken very openly about your PTSD. If it’s okay, can you please share how your time as a paramedic had such an impact on your mental health?

IM: One of the questions that paramedics get asked the most is: “What is the scariest thing you have ever seen?” We don’t usually answer that question honestly, because the reality is that most people don’t really want to know (and we don’t necessarily want to relive those events either.) Paramedics obviously see horrible things happen to the human body through trauma and disease, but we also bear daily witness to the emotional suffering that everyone goes through at different times in their lives. There is nothing greater than being there to help somebody when they need it the most, but there is also a cumulative effect that comes from doing it day after day.

When I started working as a paramedic in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t a proper appreciation of things like PTSD. I can remember responding to calls early in my career for things like major traumas, sexual assaults, pediatric deaths, etc and being told: “suck it up, you get paid to see things like that.” I was fortunate though, because I had mentors very early in my career that helped me learn to navigate the waters of being a paramedic.

Phoblographer: When you realized you needed help, did you turn to photography straight away, or was it part of a longer process of trying to heal?

IM: Photography was always there, but my relationship with it definitely changed as I went through my journey with PTSD. One of the things that you focus on a lot as you heal from PTSD is the importance of mindfulness practice, and I quickly realized that I was the most mindful, the most present, when I was doing photography or playing guitar. These were the times when the inner demons were silent, which allowed me to process everything that I was talking about with my counselor and ultimately come to the place that I am in today. So, photography went from something that I had always loved to something that became almost a form of meditation for me.

Phoblographer: In terms of your mental health, how dark did things get for you, and what was it about photography that helped pull you back towards the light?

IM: It is difficult to describe how dark things got for me because everybody experiences suffering in their own way – it is a very personal thing. At a time when I was struggling, photography was my reason to get out of the house, to walk the streets, to interact with people, and to have purpose through the creation of art.

“…the reality is that I am simply inspired by life. I have a curious mind, and a love of people…”

Phoblographer: You shoot a variety of genres. Is there a particular genre of photography you feel most aligned with and inspired by?

IM: I think a quick perusal of my website or Instagram account would definitely point toward street and travel photography as my preferred genres, but the reality is that I am simply inspired by life. I have a curious mind, and a love of people, so it is easy for me to find inspiration in the little vignettes of daily life that are all around me.

Ultimately though, I think I am the most inspired by unplanned moments. There is magic in life that is all around us, and once you learn to see it you are never at a loss for subject matter. I am at my happiest when I have one camera, one lens, and time to observe and experience the world around me.

Phoblographer: Looking at things creatively, how do you think your work compares from Ian – the man using photography to heal wounds, to Ian – the man who is in a better place in life?

IM: My photography had already gone through a metamorphosis before the PTSD happened, so stylistically I don’t think it changed very much during my journey with PTSD. What did happen though, as I was re-evaluating and re-building my entire life, was that I had the opportunity and time to evaluate my work with a critical eye and make sure that I was on the right path still. Now, today, I feel very good about my work. There are always parts of my craft I am striving to improve of course, but I feel like I am making the images that I need to be making right now.

Phoblographer: You’re now in the creative world full time. Like any other field, it has its pressures and can impact a person’s well-being. How do you manage stress on a day to day basis while running your photography business?

IM: Life, especially in today’s 24/7 world, always has the potential to be stressful doesn’t it? I think that self-care strategies, be it time with family, with photography, doing yoga, or just walking your dog, are so important to maintaining our health and well being. These strategies make us resilient, which allow us to continue doing what we love.

I do think that many of us, myself included, tend to push these self-care strategies aside when things get “busy. “What I learned going through my PTSD journey though is that we must prioritize these things, not push them aside, because they are the very things that allow us to handle the stress.

Phoblographer: You have a book coming out on January 1st, which is a document of your journey. What inspired you to do the book, and how do you feel about the process of creating it?

IM: Last year, a photography organization that I present to on a fairly regular basis asked me to come back and do another presentation. I had delivered talks on street photography and travel photography there in the past, so I wanted this one to be a little bit different, perhaps something more inspirational, something that was focussed on why we do what we do as artists. As a presenter, I think I am at my best when I speak from a place of experience, so it felt very natural to use my journey with PTSD and photography as the vehicle for this presentation.

“There are people out there that care about you, people that have walked a similar journey before you, and many of those people, myself included, want to help.”

The process of expanding that presentation into the book has been interesting because I don’t really feel like my journey is done. I am constantly reminded of a quote that I heard years ago, when somebody asked a famous artist how they knew that a song they were recording was done. Their answer was that a song is never done, at some point you just have to let go and publish it. I can relate to this, because I am constantly thinking of new ideas and concepts that I want to talk about. I am excited by the prospect of publishing the book though because I think it may have value for somebody who is going through their own personal struggles.

Phoblographer: Having a book release is a great way to sign off the year. What’s your focus for 2020?

IM: 2019 was an amazing year. I feel so grateful for my health and for the growth that my business has experienced. I also feel that through the Create Forever project, the numerous podcasts that I have been on this year and through my website and upcoming book that I have made a good start at getting out my message regarding the importance of caring for those who are struggling.

Looking forward is exciting. I have wonderful clients, amazing students, and strong relationships with people in the industry. I dislike complacency, however, so I want 2020 to be a year of growth both as an artist and with my business.

Phoblographer: We live in a time where it’s much easier to talk about mental health. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of removing the unfair stigma associated with it. To any photographer – or any person – reading this, who is struggling with their mental health, what’s your message to them?

IM: One of the worst aspects of having depression or any other mental health illness is the feeling of isolation. People often self-isolate, perhaps due to the stigmatization that you mentioned. My comment to those people is simply to say this: You are not alone.

There are people out there that care about you, people that have walked a similar journey before you, and many of those people, myself included, want to help. I know that the hardest part of it all, at least for me, is simply asking for help. Once you’ve stepped across that line though you are on your way to a better life.

Thank you for the opportunity to have this important conversation. If anybody would like to get a hold of me they can contact me at my:

Website, Instagram, and Twitter

All images by Ian MacDonald. Used with permission.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.