-:Streetlights.+ (How Photography Helped Me With Anxiety)

If you’ve found your hands shaking, palms leaking or stomach flaring for no reason then you are probably under the spell of anxiety. Most of the time the feeling quickly fades as the culprit thought goes away, but sometimes it doesn’t. For some, it lingers like a spider web in the corner. We’ve all experience it at some point, but the burden is greater for others, including myself. I still am one of those people, I will always be one of those people. But I realize that anxiety doesn’t define me; and I’ve had photography to help me with that.
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Chapel Hill, NC-2011
Photography has always been around in my life as just a side hobby. Now with the creation of The Golden Moment it has turned into a necessity, carrying my camera everywhere. Photography only exists in the now. The lighting, subjects of focus, even the elements of a scene you can’t see. The laughter or deep sighs, the emotions of a moment are there. As a photographer you challenge yourself to capture that essence, you steal from time and must expose the emotions to others. It’s taking up this task that forced me to go directly against anxiety. For me, the struggle began early in my college career, which caused me to hit some extremely low points while trying to maintain my stability. There have been nights spent staring at ceiling fans and digital numbers reading 2AM, panic attacks being brought on in public, and a constant state of feeling rejected from your own body. It was a episode that revolved around my life like a hurricane, granting me only moments of serenity in the midst of the storm. But now, it too, has come to pass. It’s taken at least four years to reach this point, but I’m here and being this close to the end of a civil war is a remarkable feeling. By picking up my camera I was forced to put the future and everything else aside and to be in that moment, then bottle it up in an image and mix it with your own soul. You take on what you photograph, it serves as a reflection of you. Anxiety deals with the intangible, the hidden and hazy. Photography is bringing light into that and dispelling it.
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San Francisco, CA-2015
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Barcelona, Espana-2014

 The Shoot.

My vision began to change as I stopped looking ahead to an unknown future and see what was around me and learning how to finally pay attention to the now. It wasn’t easy at first, still focusing on factors out of my control (school, future career plans, family health). But then over time, I began to notice what was in front of me; and what was about to be in front of me. No longer trying to snap photos of tomorrow or yesterday, and accept what was being shown to me now. There are so many small details about the world we miss out on by moving at such a fast pace. Soon after, I wanted to show others, so my journey would no longer be alone. As I taught myself to observe everything in a scene and be willing to change my angle I realized that I no longer had time to deal with the intangible. There was enough in the world to dedicate my attention to. The anxiety dealing with plans, unrealistic thoughts and well being of loved ones started to no longer be seen as a tool of fear but another moment to observe.
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Detroit, MI-2015
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Greenville, SC-2015

 The Edit.

Then comes my favorite part, editing. Where I sit for hours and sift through all the moments, picking apart the memories. Taking raw material and crafting it into a beautiful display of the past. I am then forced to choose which ones to bring to life. It’s where you get to add your own emotions to the scene. In relation to anxiety, I realized that I could choose which thoughts to focus on and enhance. There are too many to entertain and if you try then your system goes haywire. It’s no different then batch editing. So I focused, picked out the important ones and began to add myself into them. Those thoughts that I wanted to represent me became actions, and over time they began to shape the person I am now…and still becoming. And as time passed, the thoughts that didn’t make the cut were no longer remembered; only the knowledge that they existed remained. You never forget thoughts, but if you don’t give them the time to stay then they will pass by like smoke in a sunset. These pictures who end up in the digital graveyard were once files, but once deleted they can be removed from the trash. We think that keeping them in this bin will help, but it ends up taking up more space to store it than removing it completely. I’m sure you can understand the importance of making room for something new…
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El Naranjal, Honduras-2014

The Upload.

Finally, came the most challenging portion. Sharing the photos. Because, I couldn’t keep them to myself. It began anonymously on Tumblr, then eventually taking them to the front page of all my social media. This is the hardest step for me, because you bare yourself in hopes that someone will like it…and then you discover that they do. Someone likes your photo, your vision of the world appeals to another person. They see only the finished product, they don’t know about the shooting and the editing. Remember that. Because when you have anxiety, others don’t see what you’re doing to combat it. It’s an internal affair that only your hands can manipulate. We often times want to portray nothing but the good; but a darkened photo, a blurry shot or one with a lot of noise can also showcase your negatives. We need those, we need the full spectrum of images, not just the joyful and heavily saturated smiles. And as I began to share this with others it became clear, that showing your viewpoint with someone else could help you understand it. I believe my first breakthrough came when I told my parents about my mental state through a phone-call made during May 2012…and then again in May 2015 (refusing to make a similiar call this year!) . And they opened their arms, but then they quickly turned into supporters in my fight. That’s what happens, after sharing what was going on in your head, you gain allies. Strangers who can become friends, friends who can become family and even people you wrote off can return with encouraging words. To say I did it alone would be ludicrous, and I would definitely recommend seeking professional treatment if it begins to debilitate you. Do not be afraid, a strong conscious alone can’t compete against potential chemical imbalances so be wise in contacting the necessary healthcare provider, whether it be a psychiatrist or therapist. It’s through your expression that they can empathize with you, although they may never fully understand, they know enough to join your backbone of support. The photos you show represent you, and when you allow others to see them, it becomes more than a projection; but rather an image who’s origin is from within your own eyes.
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Manhattan, NY-2016
The anxiety of living in an age where we must speed to a comfortable and material life was fading. The fears of failing at everything, feeling helpless and being alone proved to be false evidence as I began to define my own viewpoint. For me, it was done through the lens of my Nikon. Then the Golden Moment was born, it was me finally accepting the anxiety as the thorn in my side, and eventually using that weakness as a strength. I’m still learning, each day, how to live with my old friend anxiety but now, I’ve at least accepted him as we look on this world together. This mutual bond grants me a degree of control, and soon this will eventually only be a framed memory in the gallery of my life. And now, life couldn’t be more blessed. Pursing my career of dentistry, working two jobs, part-time selling and stitching hats and teaching students Organic Chemistry, creating meaningful bonds with the people in my life and this. This explosion of art came from growing my anxiety from a bad seed into a garden.The lack of stability and focus I had with anxiety drove me to create and adopt both. It took work, to till and dismantle the earth and reach deep within it, water loamy soil constantly without seeing any changes, and then finally, a sprout arrives.
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Central Park, NY-2016

 To You.

For anybody who is struggling with the thorn of mental illness (in any shape or fashion), I say keep fighting and share your truths. I was inspired to take on this task by watching others who struggled with similar hardships tell their tale. Most notably, Kimberly and her website “The Fault Line Project” (my favorite is her post entitled “Man Up”) and Rwenshaun with his, “Monumental Monomental“. I was also sadly reminded of the dark side of mental illness this past January when a fellow Tarheel, Priya took her own life. And although we never knew one another, the fact that paths were crossed and mutual friends were shared reminds you how similar we truly are. She used the ending of her story to spark a beginning in others, including myself.
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Raleigh, NC-2015
To those who think they may be struggling with it, congratulations! You’re finally taking a step forward to accepting that truth. Once that is done then you can begin to take charge. To those who believe that “mental illness is reserved for crazies” or “mental illness means you pop pills”, I’m here to prove you wrong. Me, I was a black undergraduate dental hygiene student at UNC-Chapel Hill (my dream school), an Alpha, a volunteer and leader in campus organizations, with countless friends and associates. According to societal ideals I was healthy. But yet, I was diagnosed at 20; probably suffering since age eighteen, beginning with a car accident on this very day. So don’t think you know someone’s state of mind, a smile can cover up more scars than any long-sleeve shirt. Next time someone mentions mental illness, think twice before adding to the negative stigma surrounding it.
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Chapel Hill, NC-2016
Finally, to my black brothers and sisters, keep addressing this issue. Your voices are being heard. More and more of us are realizing the truth that we are just as susceptible to mental illnesses as any other race. Please put down any notions you have of it and understand that we’re more likely to be diagnosed based on the hardships surrounding being black in America.  Below is a series of tweets taken from the profile of Ace Henderson (@AceHenny) as he sheds light on the stigma and it’s origins within our communities.
  • our pride…as black people, is so strong that it’s grown to a fault in regards to maintaining our sanity in a society not built FOR us
  • in black communities, if you have an ailment and it isn’t broken/bleeding it isn’t addressed. mental health gets overlooked
  • being black we have to translate 2 codes of ethics (it’s sad) and that creates a lot of doubt and confusion inside…we can’t b ashamed
  • from 7th grade – 11th grade…”therapists”/”psychiatrists” were taboo bc in black community that shit is foreign! it’s a #whiteflag.

The conversation has begun, it’s being discussed now so hopefully one day our children won’t have to silently suffer from a mental illness. So if you won’t do it for you, do it for them.

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Charlotte, NC- 2015
Anxiety is a long term battle with a part of you that doesn’t respond to your normal directions. It takes patience to accept; and even more to find a way to live with it. The feeling never truly leaves, but now it no longer holds a vice grip. Instead, you learn to not only live in the moment but breathe life into it. To become one with the now, drowning out the anxiety which is constantly knocking at your door. You may not always be able to choose when they come, but you do have the power to not invite them in. That power, can take weeks or years to develop; yet it always develops like the ideal photo. They say you should take up a hobby when you’re emotionally/mentally distressed and I’m here to agree. Whatever your thorn is, whatever is your Achilles heel, find something that can reverse the feeling. Photography is about living in the shoot along with the uncontrollable elements, deleting and editing based on personal selection and presenting them to others. This is how photography helped me with my anxiety.
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Brooklyn, NY-2016

Streetlights.

I’m sure you’ve noticed this post is full of the same type of photos. My favorite subject to photograph is the lamp. These pictures serve as the proof of my journey with anxiety over the years, which has been a fusion of light and shadows. To me the lamp is a man-made construct that happens to house a piece of God in the form of light. Whether its on the street guiding weary commuters home, illuminating the garden of a notebook so orchids don’t bloom in the dark, or rushing across water like galloping spirits. To me, we’re no different; being made from earthly bodies yet carrying a wisp of divinity that’s job is to radiate for others in the dark. A lamp can shine during the day, but it’s purpose is to glow in the twilight.
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Spanish Harlem, NY- Taken an hour before today, my 24th birthday.
No light
without darkness.
  The harmony of the Universe
depends upon an eternal balance.
Out of the struggle to maintain this balance
comes the birth of Legends. – Intro to “Legends (Dir. by Ridley Scott)
~J.Varina

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