Photography as a Balm for Mental Illness


To the casual observer, Danielle Hark was living an enviable life, with a devoted husband, a new baby and work she enjoyed as a freelance photo editor. But she was so immobilized by depression that she could barely get out of bed. Her emotional state could not be explained in postpartum terms — she had suffered from debilitating depression for most of her life, and ultimately received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder when her daughter was a year old.

“I thought about killing myself for the first time in seventh grade,” said Ms. Hark, now 33. “I went from therapist to therapist and medication to medication, not comfortable with anyone or any drugs.”

Two years ago, on one of her worst days, something different happened. “I was literally on the bathroom floor, bawling,” she said. “But I picked up my phone and started taking pictures — paint peeling on the door, reflections in the mirror. It just took a couple of minutes for me to become more present, breathing more normally. It was a really important moment.”

That experience led her to create the Broken Light Collective, an online gallery intended to provide a supportive environment for photographers affected by mental illness. The site now has contributors from 150 countries, struggling with disorders like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress, borderline personality disorder and eating disorders. This summer, the group had its first live show, “From Darkness to Light,” at the Fountain Gallery in New York City. (The show runs through Aug. 13.)

“For me, it’s the act of shooting that helps,” Ms. Hark said. “It doesn’t matter how the photos come out. It’s a mindfulness process that brings me into my body. I’m not worrying about the past or the future, just looking through the lens. Some people analyze their photos and use them to explore their lives. There are a lot of possibilities that are therapeutic.”

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