“I wanted to normalize the emotions that I and so many others feel,” says photographer Kimberly Kizzia about the mental struggles she and countless others experience daily. Acknowledgment and acceptance of mental health issues are unfortunately not that widespread today. But Kimberly began a long-term photo project which she hopes will help others see things they weren’t aware of.
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For a very long period of my youth, I was unaware of how issues like depression would affect people. It wasn’t something I learned about; the general idea was that it was just another mood. But it wasn’t, as I found out later when a friend opened up about his daily struggles with it. For a good three years or so, he struggled daily. Some of the symptoms and patterns he described I personally experienced at various times in my own life. And I often wondered why I did not recognize this when I experienced it. Was it because I was conditioned to think mental health issues were just a phase? Or because, as young adults, we weren’t taught how to identify these issues in others or even in ourselves. The stigma around such topics still exists in society, and we tend not to think of such problems as issues that can or already have affected us. Understanding and sympathizing with others who struggle with these problems is the first step. And not subconsciously outcasting them is something we need to be careful about.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Kimberly Kizzia
Kimberly told us:
- Canon EOS R
- Canon 24-70mm f2.8 lens
- Canon 50mm f1.8
- Canon 24mm f2.8
I’m a Canon girl myself, I currently use a Canon EOS R, with my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens as my workhorse.
The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Kimberly Kizzia: Hello, my name is Kimberly Kizzia. I’ve been a working photographer in some fashion or another since I was 16 years old when I was hired at a local portrait studio. I have had a passion for photography since I was a young child- constantly taking photos at any chance, I had of objects, friends, nature, etc. I didn’t find my passion for portrait photography until I was in high school though. That is when I began to explore self-portraits as well as portraits of my friends, family members, and eventually strangers.
The Phoblographer: This could be painful to answer, but when did you realize documenting your personal struggles with Bipolar Disorder was something you wanted to do?
Kimberly Kizzia: I started photographing my struggles with mental health in high school but stopped exploring it by around 2006 or so when I started venturing out on my own and eventually became pregnant a few years later and took quite some time off self-portraits. I didn’t begin to re-explore mental health photography until 2020 when during the beginning of the pandemic, I realized how many people were struggling with their mental health. There was a need to visually document not only my own struggles with mental health but that of others as well. For just over a year, I found a good balance of medication and therapy, and the project was once again put on the back burner until this March, when I experienced a depressive episode that lasted about a month and a half. During that time, I decided I would document myself during my darkest hours.
The Phoblographer: What do you aim to achieve out of this documentation?
Kimberly Kizzia: I was hoping that the more I showed the pain and emptiness that I was feeling, the more I would help people who don’t struggle with their mental health actually see the effects of mental illness in a visual form and, in turn break some stigma that is attached to it. I wanted to normalize the emotions that I and so many others feel.
The Phoblographer: Has this interfered with your professional photography assignments?
Kimberly Kizzia: In my day-to-day life, I am a family and boudoir photographer, and depression made it nearly impossible for me to network, reach out, advertise or take on new assignments. I lost the motivation and creative spark that keeps a photographer hungry for work.
The Phoblographer: There is undoubtedly a significance in the unclothed self-portraits. Tell us about these and how they resonate with your feelings and experiences.
Kimberly Kizzia: When I first started that project, which I dubbed “Documenting Depression,” I felt strongly that the nudity was to symbolize the nakedness required to be honest and open about mental health struggles. So often we try to hide behind our facades and pretend that nothing is wrong, so to me, being unclothed was an in-your-face example of a naked look in my mind. I got a lot of flack from certain people, saying it was attention-seeking or took away from the project itself, but I disagree completely. In order to truly show the raw emotions I was feeling, I had to first strip away preconceptions both figuratively and literally. The expressions and body language in those images were best displayed without being hidden behind clothing–or people’s notions of what depression looks like.
The Phoblographer: It must be challenging to photograph this while experiencing overwhelming feelings. Do you run the camera through an intervalometer and let it document your emotions over a period of time?
Kimberly Kizzia: I’m lucky that my husband and children allowed me to leave my camera and tripod set up in our living room for weeks, just moving it around periodically depending on my energy and feelings that day. When I typically take a self-portrait, I will take 50-200 images in search of the one that I like best. I am a perfectionist and overly critical of myself on any given day. However, during this project, I would document 1-20 images and let them speak for themselves. I was not looking for perfection during that span of time; I was only concerned about capturing the mood of the day. I use the Canon Connect app with a timer as a remote for my self-portraits which has its advantages and disadvantages but allows me to photograph myself without moving myself or my camera much.
The Phoblographer: Bringing out these experiences through images can’t be all that straightforward. No photo can possibly illustrate what your mind is experiencing 100%. But have you noticed a steady improvement over these years in how your images reflect what you undergo?
Kimberly Kizzia: I definitely think how I express myself through my self-portraits has improved over the years. As with any passion, the more you practice, the greater your skills are. Yet, I have revisited ideas I originally had decades ago and still don’t feel like I am able to capture them to the fullest. This has a variety of reasons, though mostly due to limitations such as my current dwellings not being the most photogenic of places. I have spent the last few years squeezing out any ounce of creative use of my surroundings. Another thing I struggle with is trying to capture the essence of my moods, even if I’m not experiencing them currently. After my most recent depressive episode, I stabilized and yet wanted to photograph the companion series I dubbed “Mania and Me.” This series was important to me because I wanted to show what the other side of bipolar disorder can look like. Of course, not everyone experiences mania the same way, but it did spark some interesting conversations about moods and mania.
The Phoblographer: Have other sufferers contacted you after seeing your work and asked you to document their struggles too?
Kimberly Kizzia: I have had quite a few people reach out to me once I started posting these images publicly. It has touched my heart the stories that people share with me about their struggles and successes. It seems that my willingness to share my own experiences gives people a chance to reflect on their own mental health and allows them to feel some sense of solace knowing that someone out there has struggled with similar things. I have been lucky to photograph people with different mental illnesses as well. These people have allowed me to interview them for quite some time where we bond over stories and symptoms then I research their illness, and I have photographed them in their environment in ways that visually tell a story of their symptoms. I started doing this during the height of the pandemic though, and I’d like to return to this particular facet of my project soon, as working with my peers is, in a way, very cathartic for both me and them.
So often we try to hide behind our facades and pretend that nothing is wrong
The Phoblographer: Does doing photography help calm your feelings after going through episodes of mental anguish and panic attacks?
Kimberly Kizzia: Doing what I love definitely helps me focus on something outside of my head. It gets the gears turning in a different direction, so to speak. It’s not a solution by any means, but it sure beats going for a run!
The Phoblographer: What message would you like to send to others who are going through the same experience as you? How can photographers help spread the awareness of mental health disorders?
Kimberly Kizzia: While being open and honest with your mental health can be uncomfortable, I think that finding someone- a community or a friend- to share with is pertinent to stay stable. I rely a lot on my friends and community to support me in times of need. Personally, I have found that being true to myself has opened a lot of doors for me and been a driving force for me to maintain my stability. Mental health takes work, but knowing that I’ve impacted even one person with my images is enough for me to keep going. Other photographers can document their own symptoms and emotions as well; I love to see how other people are able to express their personal challenges. As someone with aphantasia, I am a very literal person and interpret mine in a straightforward fashion, so I’d love to see what people with more active imaginations come up with. There’s a lot of room in the photography community for people to explore themselves and others, and I believe that mental health photography is an important step toward breaking the stigmas that surround it.
All images by Kimberly Kizzia. Used with permission. Check out her website and her Instagram and Twitter pages to see more of her photography.
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