How photography is
helping CAMH clients focus on their mental wellness
Light and darkness are often used as metaphors in mental
health and addictions, and for many CAMH clients, the dichotomy between the two
is a perfect way to illustrate their journey through recovery. Light is also an
essential aspect of photography, and its presence or absence determines how a
camera is able to capture photos.
On April 10, clients in the Addiction Medicine Service were
at Artscape YoungPlace to unveil their photography as part of the latest CAMH PhotoVoice
Exhibit, Into the Light, which was on
public display from April 11-12. The exhibit was a culmination of an 11-week
program that incorporates photography into recovery.
Returning this year as program facilitators were Occupational
Therapist Nicole Bartlett and
Patient Experience Officer Sean
Patenaude – each lending insight into the creative process and teaching
clients about using photography as a storytelling outlet and therapeutic tool. “It’s
really great to see the transformation people have from the very first week –
they’re a bit anxious… they’re insecure about their work. Now you can see that
everyone is clearly very proud [of the photos they produced],” says Nicole.
This year the team welcomed a new addition, Paul Koniec, a nurse with the Addiction
“I love photography. I understand the benefit it can have –
it’s extremely therapeutic,” said Paul, a former professional photographer. He
describes his own journey, and why he was drawn to this program. “When you
first start photography, you love it for the art. When you start making money
off of it, it becomes just a job, and I gave up photography several years ago
because it was [about] money. I lost the love for it because it was just a
means to make money – I didn’t care to be creative, I just cared to make a
“What this group, and this whole experience did for me… it
got me to pick up a camera again. For the love. It was the inspiration I got
from the clients, and it inspired me to get back out there.”
“This is my first time doing this program. I always liked
taking pictures, but nothing quite like this. It’s quite exciting,” said Christine, a client with the service.
The photographs she’s chosen as part of her exhibit tell a story that’s close
to her heart. “This is kind of like my journey… this is my journey,” she says.
For Christine, PhotoVoice also gave her a reason, and at
times even forced her, to get outside. “I was isolating myself… this gets me
out of the house. People sometimes ask why I’m taking pictures, and I’ve met
new friends from just being here,” she said. “Everyone here is very supportive,
I’ve learned a lot of things about photography I had no idea about… everyone
here is really helpful. It’s really helped me and has given me something to
look forward to.
“I’m definitely going to keep taking pictures. I’ve
committed to this and wanted to follow through with it.”
Leah LeDrew has
been a client with CAMH for several years, but this is the first time she’s
participated in PhotoVoice.
“I have a literary background, but I was always focused on
visual arts within my Masters thesis,” she said prior to the exhibit, as she
wrote down ideas for her photo captions. For Leah, the program was a perfect
way to meld both literary and visual arts, and it’s evident in the thoughtful
ways in which she describes her photographs.
“I liked just snapping at things that interested me, and
then a theme started emerging. I started with the name of the exhibit – it’s a
play on coming out of depression. That’s what we’re here for,” she said. When
asked what in particular it was about the theme that struck her, Leah put it
simply, “Just the metaphor of the darkness. In a lot of these photographs, the
light is trying to push the darkness back.”
An important aspect of photography is light: without enough
light, your camera can have trouble focusing. The same can be said with people,
and there are times when we need to try hard to focus.
“I need a project to force me to actually follow through,
and that’s what this program is good for… I was accountable to a group and an
end-game. Hopefully I keep the momentum going, and do it for myself.”
While life isn’t always going to be bright skies, Leah saw
the project as an opportunity to find light in everything. “I just had my
camera with me at all times, just in case… and there’s a lot of
‘just-in-cases’. I’ve always been visually oriented before, but now I can’t
stop looking for the pictures. Having a community focused on the same thing
“PhotoVoice is becoming more well-known, now that we’ve done
a couple of cycles. We’ve had some people come back and do it again,” says
One of those returning clients is Peter. A few days before the show, clad in a Hasselblad Camera
vest, he spoke about his decades of experience with photography, and how, like
Paul, his love for photography has been rekindled. While he’s reticent to
compare his work of last year with this year’s, it is apparent that there’s a
difference in the subjects of his photos. This time around, his photos include
several street portraits.
“These are people I somewhat know, in a sense… I know their
names and what they do for a living, where they come from,” said Peter. “[Asking
people for permission to photograph them] never used to be a big issue, but for
the last while, it’s been an issue. I’ve lost my confidence, basically.” But
it’s apparent from the photos that his confidence is returning.
“Going way back, I never had problems stopping people in the
streets in different cities and countries, asking people to pose for me and
mostly getting people reacting in a positive way. I think I’m getting some of
[my confidence] back, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m trying to get
back into it again”
Peter continues to grow as a photographer and as much as
possible, he tries to incorporate photography in his daily life. “I carry at
least one camera with me every day… digital or film. Sometimes the film camera
is even a medium format camera [which is bigger than a regular 35mm camera].”
Experienced photographers Peter and Paul share thoughts on
The program isn’t just about teaching people to be better
photographers or better storytellers. Part of the aim is to help clients
appreciate their surroundings, and use interventions like mindfulness and
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in practical applications.
“We went out to two art galleries with the group – twice to
Camera across the street, and once to the Gladstone to see Workman
Arts’ Being Scene exhibit,” said Nicole. “We try to probe them with
questions, like, ‘are you noticing more in your surroundings that you want to
capture?’. CBT definitely also comes into it; the behavioural activation of
getting out, even if they don’t feel like it, is something everyone has had to
do at least once.”
The famous photographer Ansel
Adams once said that “You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” There’s no
truer example of this than the photography on display, as clients weave light
and darkness into a narrative that is personal but shared.
Hugh, another PhotoVoice
participant and CAMH client has 40 years of photography experience.
show great framing and composition, but one thing you may not notice is that
each photo features at least one of his dogs in some way.
program is supported by Gifts of Light’s comfort fund, and has received support
from Downtown Camera and Artscape Youngplace.
Published May 10, 2017