Photography can be stressful and even anxiety-inducing. Whether you're shooting photojournalism or advertising, weddings or sports, you're under pressure to deliver standout images on deadline. Long days or months spent travelling, often alone, perhaps covering harrowing stories, can be draining. Add to this the financially precarious nature of freelance work – something many felt acutely in the wake of Covid-19 – and it's clear why many freelance photographers burn out.
"If I don't take care of my mental health, I can't do my job effectively," says Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a London-based photojournalist and TED Fellow who has covered conflicts around the world for international media outlets and NGOs. "Without self-awareness and some level of emotional and mental stability, we're not able to process and retell other people's stories."
To tie in with World Mental Health Day, Canon's Shutter Stories podcast featured a discussion about stress and anxiety with host Lucy Hedges and photographers Anastasia and Tasneem Alsultan, a Saudi-based documentary photographer focusing on human rights and social issues for The New York Times and National Geographic. Here, they swap experiences and discuss coping mechanisms for dealing with burnout, and reveal their hopes – heading for a more compassionate, caring image industry.
Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:
Our industry can be tough at the best of times, but the Covid pandemic has brought extra challenges, financially and emotionally. How have you found the past few months?
"I didn't really deal with this well," says Tasneem, "especially initially, when we didn't have enough information. I felt physically drained and exhausted to the point where I was worried I'd caught Covid. I got tested and I'm fine. But I think our bodies are closely tied to our emotional state.
"We were going through a lockdown in Saudi, so every city was locked away from the neighbouring town. And I'm on the border of Saudi on the Eastern province, which is where the US Army was based during the Gulf War. It was in our neighbourhood, so it really kind of triggered me emotionally to go back to that phase of my childhood [when movement was similarly restricted]. So I found a way to leave my town and went to Riyadh, the capital city, with only one of my daughters, thinking [that there might be more work in the capital]. That didn't work out. And I was in lockdown in another city that I'm not really from, and had never lived in, with one daughter.
"The way I dealt with it was to start just preoccupying my mind away from photography," Tasneem continues. "I've attached myself so much to the camera that if I'm not holding it, then I feel lacking. So I started reading about meditation, learning how to calm down and be more aware of my own surroundings and connected with my own family. And I started doing an Instagram Live interview daily for the first three months. That helped me feel like I had something to wake up to and organise."
Anastasia's experience was similar. "When the pandemic started, all of the assignments that I had lined up for the following few months were either cancelled or put on hold," she says. "I had to ask myself the really difficult question, which is: if I'm not a photographer, who am I?
"And of course being a photographer isn't just about going out and making pictures, there's so much other work to do. So in the beginning I was working on my tax returns, updating my website, doing admin to occupy myself and also trying to find small pleasures. I ride horses, I take care of my brother's puppy, I go for long walks, do yoga and just try to be present."
"I treat every offer of work as possibly the last piece of paid work I'm going to get, because you never know," says Anastasia. "When you're rolling off back-to-back personal projects and assignments and you don't know when you're going to get your next assignment, you never feel you can turn anything down. So it means you get used to living and working in a much more high-energy and high-drama environment."
"I've recently started being more conscious," says Tasneem, "reflecting on my previous work. I always rushed from one assignment to the other, from one project to the other. I've realised that it's OK to say you're anxious and you're worried and you don't have to be always in a conflict zone to freak out, to have meltdowns. And the more I've been sharing this with my friends, I realised we're all in that same boat."
"I am optimistic and I do see change slowly but surely in our industry," says Anastasia. "The myth of the photographer, and specifically the war photographer, as the tragic hero is the prevailing myth inside our industry. We celebrate risk-taking, and we idealise and glamorise this idea that, as artists, we have to suffer for our craft. As the industry shifts away from these traditional narratives and becomes more diverse, I see more openness. The more I say: 'These are the things I struggle with,' the more I hear people saying: 'So do I.'
"In 2017, I covered the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. I was sent by Human Rights Watch to document and record the stories of massacre survivors inside the refugee camps," Anastasia adds. "And when I came back, for the first time in my professional life, I was offered a debriefing session with a counsellor. It reminded me how careful I have to be to take care of myself – but also how important it is to take care of myself in the service of being a photographer. It's a professional obligation as well as a personal one."
"Understand that you're not alone," says Tasneem. "It's OK to reach out and share some of the vulnerability that you have, because so many people will appreciate that and they will reach out to you. We don't have to follow the steps of people before us, if it's not always great and correct. We can rectify that. Especially during this time, I think it's really important to stay humble."
"Exercise," says Anastasia. "Use your body to heal, quiet and help your mind. For some people that might be running or going for long walks or another kind of sport, something that engages you physically and possibly not intellectually, because a lot of being a photographer is in your head and thinking about things as well as seeing them."
"Speak to a therapist earlier," says Tasneem. "In my culture it's really frowned upon to state that you have emotional issues. It's something that people feel ashamed about."
"The change I want to see," says Anastasia, "is not leaving young photographers to figure this stuff out for themselves, but creating a nurturing, caring and kind photography community, so that the risk-taking and harmful behaviour that the generations before us engaged in when they experienced stress and trauma are not encouraged or handed on to the next generation."