By Joel Robison

A few weeks ago I had one of the most profound and touching moments of my photography career. I was invited to speak (via Zoom) with two classes from my former elementary school and share my journey of photography and creativity and how I use it to talk about mental health. I was nervous to say the least, I’d never spoken to kids about my work or about mental health and I wasn’t sure how deep to go, how to approach it and make it accessible. I shouldn’t have worried at all.

In the presentation I shared with them my own photography story, how I sat in the same rooms they’re sitting in now and dreamed of being an artist, how I sometimes felt silly for wanting to do a job that wasn’t really “a job” by the definitions set in front of us. I explained to them where my ideas come from and how I use my work to express myself, both the good times and good feelings and the times when I’m feeling scared or sad or worried. I watched the gallery of little masked faces nodding and giving thumbs up as I talked.

Image by Joel Robison.

At the end, I asked for questions and almost instantly a sea of waving hands appeared on the tiny screens, and the questions were incredible. These little minds were so clever, so in touch with themselves and the world around  them and they wanted to know so much more than I expected them to. They asked about what to do when their friends are depressed, what to say when their mom is upset, how to find ways to express their own emotions through drawings. In all the years of presenting I’ve never had so many questions at the end of a talk.

In the days that followed I thought a lot about the entire experience, growing up I was really lucky that I lived in a family and community that encouraged me to express myself. They encouraged me to find ways to communicate what I was thinking and feeling and to share it with others. And I think that it truly helped me find a way to do that same thing with my art today.

Our art has such a valuable presence in our world, but often times we think of the end result being the focus of it. The finished image, the printed piece, the photo on the wall or on the screen. But there’s so much more to that image that makes it an opportunity to connect with yourself and others on a deeper level. For many of us, creating and taking photographs is our form of meditation, whether we know it or not.

Our art so much more than just that finished piece, it’s the experience of who we are as a person, what we think about , how we feel about the world, what emotions we carry within us and what our lives are. All of who we are exists within our art, and we should be really finding ways to make sure that we put all of who we are into the work we’re creating.

How many times have you gone out to work on some photos only to see that time has sped past? How many times have you sat and worked out the right perspective and angle and put your time and energy into taking something you’ve been seeing in your mind? That’s all a part of this connection with yourself, but I challenge you to take it deeper. To tell us who you are through the images that you share.  Tell the story of what it feels like for you to be there, right there, taking the photo that you’re taking. 

A few days after the conversation with the classes I got an email from the teacher with a powerpoint of the art that the students had created and I was astonished. They were not only creative, but they were so connected to their emotions. They told the story of their fears, their goals, their dreams, their emotions. These little artists found a way to make their art using a thread that connects their feelings to their thoughts and presented them in a way that allowed the viewer to understand completely what they were experiencing without needing words at all.

And I think,  I truly think, that’s what we all want in our work. To strike a connection with the viewer. To let them know how we felt on top of the mountain, or capturing that image of our family, or creating a whimsical composite. It’s a chance to record what life is like for us, to leave an honest legacy of our life through our work. I invite you take a moment to see how you’re feeling and find a way to build an image from that, to use your camera as the frame for that emotion and place yourself within it.

 We have this incredible opportunity to share a key part of who we are each time we create, and I hope you continue to share your amazing life in each image you take.

This article was originally written for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!

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