Chris O’Sullivan – A picture in mind

22nd August 2012

Chris O’Sullivan, shares some of his thoughts about the relationship between photography, mental health and recovery.

A Mental health activist and photographer, he talks about his own experiences of photo-journaling and discusses some of the issues raised with other members of the community.

Photography has always provided a window into people’s lives and stories. For me, the rise of digital cameras and smart phones means that photography now more than ever provides a way of documenting our lives and sharing moments with others. As a part-time photographer with lived experience of mental ill health and a day job in mental health, I often have a chance to discuss the links between the two. The box below identifies just a few of the potential connections between photography and mental health. This article focuses on photography as a means of documenting life, and with that the potential for photography skills to build confidence in recovery.


blipfoto_logoI’ve always taken pictures and enjoyed writing, so nearly three years ago a colleague suggested that I try a daily photo-journal on the BAFTA award-winning Scottish photo-journaling site Blipfoto. I got hooked and in June this year I reached the milestone of 1000 successive entries. Along the way I’ve spoken a lot about mental health in my journal with great response from the Blipfoto community. I have found out things about myself and hugely improved my wellbeing through developing a talent and having a daily focus. Finding something (or someone) to photograph on a daily basis has become a mission for me. It forces me to break away, get out and gain perspective. The return on this investment of time is much like the return from meditation: I am more at ease with myself than ever, and with that my connection to places and people has improved, along with my level of physical activity.

I’m comfortable in my recovery, but reflecting on those thousand entries I see fluctuations in mood and changes in the way I anticipate and deal with challenges and what I choose to share. I can orientate myself to the day and time with every image and I can track my life and my feelings by comparing the distance travelled between any two shots. In my day job, people often tell me that mental ill health has robbed them of the memory of weeks or years and it is easy to see the value of journaling for its contemporaneous and reflective value.

I spoke to Blipfoto founder and CEO Joe Tree about how the idea came about and what makes Blipfoto a unique community, which you can read about here.

recapture_imageElsewhere, the Re-Capture project has used the combined power of words and images as a way of encouraging young people to celebrate what recovery from eating disorders means to them. Young Scot has supported a group of young people to develop a website and a set of touring panels for exhibition. Laura Caven was awarded the Young Scot Health Award in 2012 for her work on Re-Capture. She explains why photography was a good fit for the project:

Camera phones and social media mean young people are taking and sharing pictures, so this was an obvious way of reaching people. We also really wanted to show some positive images created by people with eating disorders, since so much of what you hear about the internet, pictures and eating disorders is negative.

photohonest_logoGraham Miller is a photographer who uses documentary photography to address stigma. His website, Photohonesty showcases some of his work with people with learning disabilities, and work he has undertaken with the PKAVS Walled Garden project in Perth. Graham’s work is informed by the person’s back-story; rather than pose subjects he invites people to tell their story, capturing images as a seamless part of that. The narrative then accompanies the pictures as extended captions in exhibitions.

Miller feels strongly that developing skills in photography and other media is a logical next step from being involved in this kind of project, and a strong way to empower disabled people to produce their own high quality arts and journalistic work with even greater anti-stigma potential. Since the Walled Garden exhibition at the Birnham Institute he has delivered photography workshops with recovery champion Lorraine Nicholson, who is fulfilling a life dream with a photography and film degree course. Lorraine is a well-known advocate for arts and recovery. The combination of photography and poetry were a channel for her to express what was happening when she was unwell and a critical part of the self-reflection and confidence building that has helped her find recovery:

A lot of my work, poetry and photography is based around colour, darkness and light. For someone so visual it was wonderful when things started improving to see colours again, and to see those expressed in my work.

A chance meeting led to a solo exhibition and the sponsorship of Nicholson’s published recovery narrative in book form entitled The Journey Home. The response to the book has spurred on Lorraine on in her ambition to empower others using photography, potentially combining her arts work with her peer support qualification.


It isn’t possible to cover all the angles, or all the great work out there in a short article. Whenever I mention photography and mental health in social media or elsewhere, somebody else has a new idea or project they’ve heard of. It is clear that many people use photography for their wellbeing and for their recovery, and there is great potential to explore this as individuals in mental health services and as researchers.

To take this forward, a small event called A Picture in Mind is being held as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Mental Health Foundation, Lothian-based collective advocacy organisation CAPS and the University of Edinburgh will host the free event on 11th October in Edinburgh. A panel discussion will include Joe Tree and Graham Miller followed by an open discussion. Over the next few weeks more information about how you can get involved leading up to the event will be available from the website.

A photo by Chris features in an outdoor street touring exhibition that will be visiting Glasgow later this year. Visit the Our Digital Planet website for more details.

Read Chris’ interview with Blipfoto founder and CEO, Joe Tree.