How 'therapeutic' photography can help young people articulate the emotions of a turbulent year

A new project aims to put the mental wellbeing of 11-18 year olds in the spotlight - by showcasing images they have created to offer insight into their feelings.

Published 3 Nov 2020, 17:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
A 'mind-mapping' workshop exercise articulates childrens' responses to an image at Primrose Hill Primary School, London, as ...

A 'mind-mapping' workshop exercise articulates childrens' responses to an image at Primrose Hill Primary School, London, as part of the Show and Tell initiative. Children are then encouraged to take their own photographs. 

Photograph by Primrose Hill Primary School / Show and Tell

The cliché 'a picture tells a thousand words' is so familiar, few of us perhaps stop to wonder if the 'words' in question are those of the picture's observer, or its creator - or both.

The idea of using photography as a medium for expressing feeling is the thinking behind of a new initiative supported by some of the UK's leading photographers. Its aim is to challenge young people between the ages of 11-18 to consider the emotion behind making an image - before snapping their own photographic representation of how they are feeling. The resulting photograph can then be submitted for consideration as part of a national exhibition scheduled for 2021. 

Via workshopping and 'mind-mapping,' the Show and Tell project is also inviting young people to discuss the meanings behind images, as well as offering advice and guidance for creating their own with the help of renowned photographers from a range of fields. The thinking is that through 'therapeutic photography' young people can help ease stress and anxiety whilst boosting their ability to express emotion and develop visual literacy. 

(Related: How to take at-home photos like a NatGeo photographer.)

Created by nonprofit The Photography Movement and technology corporation Cisco, backers for Show and Tell include charity Mental Health UK, image bank Getty and photography platform EyeEm. Also lending support are photographers Emma HardyFrancis Augusto, Daniel Regan and Rankin - all of whom have created bespoke tutorials for the campaign, which is encouraging schools to integrate the workshops into classroom and in-school activity programs.    

Silent stress

The timing of Show and Tell is no accident. Recent studies have found the anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic, despite impacting every age group, has hit young people hard - from the insidious fear of invisible illness to the undermining of social structure and activity. Work by the Office for National Statistics found that while young people were generally more optimistic about the post-pandemic future, 'young people were much more likely to report being bored and lonely during the lockdown period, and 42% of them reported that it was making their mental health worse'.

An entry by student Joshua Grigg highlights what he calls the 'struggles of lockdown.' 

Photograph by © Joshua Grigg / EyeEm

Show and Tell itself references a study in The Lancet Psychiatry that suggests the mental health of the young suffered the biggest proportional deterioration during the first coronavirus wave - with 36.7% of 16-24 year olds in the study sample reporting a 'significant level of mental distress.' 

(Read: Intimate photos show families adapting to a world changed by coronavirus.)

"Kids were enduring 2020 in silence," The Photography Movement co-founder Steve Wallington said at the launch of Show and Tell. "And we really need to know how they are coping so that we can better support them now and in the future." He describes the project as a "trusted space where young people can go to improve their photography, understand the impact of images and express how they are feeling.”

So... how are you feeling? 

"If you're sometimes feeling a bit down or anxious, photos can help you communicate in a way that can be hard to put into words," says photographer Rankin, in the introduction to his workshop video. "When I really focus on taking photographs, it can stop me worrying." 

Aspiring UK photographers submitting to Show and Tell are asked to answer this critical question with their image: simply, 'how are you feeling?' Submissions close on 10 January 2021, with selected work appearing in a national exhibition later that year.    

The abiding message is that by articulating feeling, an absorbing creative outlet can be found even in the most troubling of times. 

One submission, by student Joshua Grigg, shows a face in darkness illuminated by a band of light. "I feel isolated by the restrictions of our world right now," Grigg says of his image. "My photo illustrates the struggles of lockdown, how it feels like we are trapped inside. The light cast across my face represents an opening of a door... a barrier between myself and a place of light, which is a metaphor for how I feel." 

Learn more about Show and Tell here

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