Fieldnotes

Street Photography and Mental Health

27 February 2024

Street Photography and Mental Health Jeremy Bassetti

Photography, often celebrated for its therapeutic potential, has a dark side rarely discussed. It’s not just a medium for lifting people out of their depression or helping people with the mental health issues; it can also be a source of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt.

Creativity is a gift, but it can also be a curse. The process of creating, of pouring your soul into your work, only to face disappointment, criticism, or indifference, can lead to profound self-doubt.

At least, that’s what I experienced last May taking photographs in Italy, where I found myself battling these very demons. The images I captured left me feeling inadequate and questioning my skills as a photographer.

Sure, I got a few keepers here and there, but after so much work, so much walking, and so much attention, having only a few good images made me question myself.

To be sure, I’m the reason why I only got a few good images — I cannot deny that — but I think the toxic part of this experience came when I beat myself up because of it. My self talk borders on abuse.

My realization in Rome

Peggy Kleiber Rome Italy. Jeremy Bassetti
A Peggy Kleiber Photograph On Display in Rome

It wasn’t until my last day in Rome, during a visit to the Museum of Rome in Trastevere, that my perspective began to shift.

There, I encountered the work of Peggy Kleiber, a Swiss photographer whose family discovered 15,000 negatives after her passing.

Not all her photos were masterpieces, but the exhibition helped me remember a few photographic truths.

Photography, I realized, is about more than just the final image; it’s about the experience, the act of creating, and the personal journey.

Here are some of the insights I took away from that museum visit in Rome (or watch a video I made on the topic here on YouTube).

Photography as a way of life

Photography is more than a hobby or a profession; it’s a way of life. It compels us to observe, to document, and to express ourselves.

The value of photography lies not only in the photographs we produce but in the process and experiences along the way. Photographers love shooting photos because they love being out in the world just as much as they love taking a great photo.

Photography as a means

Jeremy Bassetti Rome Italy Jeremy Bassetti
Couples Kissing in Rome, Italy.

Photography is an atelic activity, akin to dancing, playing music, or kissing, done for its own sake rather than a specific outcome. There is no “end result” in kissing. It is just fun to do. The same is true for photography.

Thinking about photography as something that we do for its own sake can free us from the pressure of perfectionism and allow us to enjoy the journey.

Subjectivity in art

I didn’t enjoy every photograph I saw on display at the Peggy Kleiber exhibit in the Museum of Rome. That that’s okay, because it helped me remember that photography is an art.

We must remember that what one person considers a bad photograph might be a masterpiece to another.

Art is subjective, and its beauty lies in its diversity and the multitude of perspectives it can evoke. And just because we don’t immediately find value in our own images doesn’t mean that nobody else will.

The Importance of selectivity

The museum also displayed some of Kleiber’s contact sheets. A few of the images on the contact sheets had marks next to them, presumably made by Kleiber to select the photographs she thought were best or wanted to print.

Seeing the contact sheets reminded me that the practice of selecting only a few images from many, as seen in contact sheets from renowned photographers, is a lesson in the value of selectivity and the acceptance of imperfection.

If a photographer selects one photograph from a roll of 36 frames, we can assume they are happy with less than 3% of their work.

Not every image can or will be a banger.

Photography as expression

Jeremy Bassetti Venice Italy Jeremy Bassetti
A Man Walks In Venice At Night.

Photography is a language of its own. And, like language, photography doesn’t always need to be clear or direct.

As in all arts, the most meaningful expressions are often those that are suggestive or ambiguous.

Therefore, qualities that the modern camera industry shuns — like grain and softness (as opposed to sharpness) — shouldn’t be avoided, especially when your work aims to be something more than strict documentary or technical photography.

A final word

For those feeling uninspired or doubtful of their work, visiting a photography exhibit can be incredibly uplifting.

It can inspire us, or serve as a reminder of why we fell in love with photography in the first place.


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