12 Apr Using photography to destigmatise mental illness in black communities
A young artist working in the medium of photography, Tsoku Maela has created a visual diary to reflect the different stages of depression, turning his personal struggle into something meaningful. He hopes that his work will spark a much-needed dialogue that will destigmatise mental illness in black communities. Read his written essay on the topic below, accompanied by a few select images from his conceptual photo series ‘Abstract Peaces’.
Contrary to popular belief, when someone is brave enough to open up about their struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or mental illness, they are most likely not looking for your sympathy or attention. Internalising can be draining at times, maybe even more toxic than a nicotine high.
I want you to take a deep breath, don’t be shy, take in as much air as you need. Now hold it in for as long as you can. Feel the pressure on your chest and on your diaphragm. Listen to your heartbeat reverberate through your body. Louder and louder. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “I can do this for a while longer. I’ll be fine”. Once you become anxious for your next breath, seconds start to feel like hours until, depending on your level of tolerance, you eventually take your next breath, and it’s amazing.
To me, this is what depression feels like, except you never know when your next breath is coming.
Growing up in a black community you quickly learn that there is a list of problems that do not ‘affect’ black people:
Mentally ill? Bewitched, or you simply study too hard.
Depressed? Lighten up, you’ve been watching way too many of those white teen movies.
Seeing a psychologist? You’re weak and should probably stop that before the neighbours find out.
When psychologist Banetsi Mpunga turned his minibus into a mobile treatment room as a response to the lack of psychology clinics in Khayelitsha, one got the feeling that this was more than just a great novelty but a bold statement. There is a need, not only for psychologists, but to address mental illness in the black community.
I have struggled with manic depression and anxiety my whole life but have only recently found the courage to open up about it to my family. They may not understand what it is, but they understand me better as a person. I also use the word ‘struggle’ loosely here. Depression isn’t all doom and gloom, there is so much beauty to be drawn from it. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and how your intricate mind works – and the reason why it works the way it does.
We’ve been indoctrinated to run away from the dark and towards the light. To embrace our virtues and ignore our vices like they came from out there somewhere, and are not part of our biological, genetic and spiritual make up.
A little over a year ago I ran towards that darkness when I started in photography and it was the best decision of my life. I began a body of work titled ‘Abstract Peaces’, a visual diary of a person during different states of depression.
The photograph ‘Rage. Regret. Return’ has an encouraging story attached to it. While showcasing the collection of work at YoungBlood’s Beautiful Life Building late last year, I met a man who was on his way home to end his life when he decided to make a final stop at the gallery he frequented often on First Thursdays. After seeing the image and realising how his anger and depression had a powerful hold over him, he chose life, and at that moment so did I. We spoke for about an hour about the struggles of mental illnesses regardless of severity and walked away better people. A few months later we met at another one of my shows where he introduced me to his fiancé. I haven’t seen nor heard from him since, but I can imagine that there are still bad days, really, really bad days. But then again, there are also really good days.
In society we march for all types of illnesses and speak openly about them without prejudice nor judgment. I think it’s time we spoke openly about anxiety, depression and mental illnesses too, without condemnation or belittling each other. We are all going through something, but you do not have to go through it alone.
This body of work is a result of going to places I hate the most about myself and finding beauty there.
If you struggle with depression I’d like you to know that there is no shame, only an opportunity. You may not know when your next breath is coming, but be patient with yourself. Take it one day at a time.
Words and images by Tsoku Maela