This Photo Project Is Redefining What Mental Illness Looks Like

The collection of free stock photos shows people dealing with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder—without cowering in their bathrobes.

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Feb 8 2017, 4:55am

A woman with sad eyes gazes at her reflection in a shattered mirror. A man pinches the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed and head bowed. A teenager sits on the floor, legs drawn to her chest and face buried in her hands. Others bite their nails, clutch their heads in pain, or simply stare into space, eyes glazed over. 

These are stock photos that appear in articles about "mental illness"—trite, stereotypical images meant to represent the complexity of what it's like to live with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Some even have titles like "crazy girl," or "young insane woman with straitjacket." In one example, a model with a bandaged wrist—apparently suggesting a suicide attempt—holds up a sign on which "HELP" has been scrawled.

This is, of course, not what mental illness looks like. So last year, a campaign called Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health created the Be Vocal Collection, a selection of free photos that counteract the grim, one-dimensional portrayals of people with mental health conditions. Released late last year, the 150 images—which are free for editorial use—give a more accurate, nuanced view of mental illness by showing the real lives of ten Americans living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Be Vocal, a broader initiative designed to empower adults with mental health conditions to advocate for themselves, is a collaboration between Getty Images; singer Demi Lovato, who's been open about her bipolar disorder; Sunovion Pharmaceuticals; and five mental health organizations—the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the Jed Foundation, Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Council for Behavioral Health. 

Suzy Favor Hamilton takes her medication. Photo by Shaul Schwarz Verbatim/Getty Images for Be Vocal

Allen Doederlein, president of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, believes the photo collection offers much-needed alternatives to the typical media depictions of people with mental health conditions. "I used to joke about [how] you would see so many images in, whether it was a magazine ad or whatever—in terms of depicting, especially, depression—this poor woman in a purple bathrobe, looking out her window or something. And it's like, 'Oh my gosh, most people do not walk around in a purple bathrobe—that's not a thing,'" he told me.

The Be Vocal Collection also illustrates the broad range of people who have mental health conditions, which Doederlein sees as an improvement to what's generally been available. "There's not a lot of diversity, and that doesn't just mean racial and ethnic diversity," he said. "The fact is, people of all ages, backgrounds, gender identifications, races—it's [something] that affects everyone, and there should be images that reflect that."  

"We wanted some really powerful, intimate moments, and to show these people for who they really are."—Shaul Schwarz

Jake Tully encountered this lack of diversity firsthand while trying to locate images for a blog post about truckers' mental health issues. He says the photos he found online were "incredibly clinical and unrealistic," and there was little variation in race, sex, and class among the people pictured. That made it tough to represent a trucking industry that's becoming increasingly diverse, he told me. "I couldn't seem to find a blue-collar worker, much less one that was not the typical white male or female." 

The Be Vocal images, which are available online through Getty Images, not only offer diversity among the photo subjects, who were chosen by the participating advocacy organizations, but also show a variety of occupations, experiences, and interests among the ten people featured. The group includes Sonya, a veteran, mental health advocate, and peer specialist; Yvonne, a social worker and small business owner; and Dior, a mental health activist and public speaker who created the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project in response to inadequate media representation of people of color with mental health conditions. 

To capture authentic moments from their lives (none of which involved purple bathrobes), photojournalist Shaul Schwarz spent time with each one during a typical day. The photos show them working, spending time with family and friends, and doing things they enjoy—painting, exercising, gardening, reading, playing an instrument. In occasional glimpses of the ways their conditions directly affect their lives, some are shown taking their medication, attending a support group, or speaking with a therapist. 

Schwarz told me he strived to be "a fly on the wall" as he followed each subject. "The exception for this project was the portraits," he told me. "We wanted some really powerful, intimate moments, and to show these people for who they really are." 

"Hopefully, someone looking at these photos understands that a mental health condition is just one aspect of someone's life, and it can be managed like any other chronic illness," he said. "It needn't define someone." 

Stolar, who joined Be Vocal via the Jed Foundation, which focuses on mental health and suicide prevention among teens and young adults, is a good example of that. Although he lives with bipolar disorder and depression, Stolar is a singer and songwriter, so alongside the shots of him riding the subway, meditating, and working out at the gym, you see him playing his guitar, rehearsing with his band, and spending time in a recording studio.  

Stolar sings during his band's rehearsal. Photo by Shaul Schwarz Verbatim/Getty Images for Be Vocal

The project's goal of reducing the stigma of mental illness made Stolar eager to take part. "I think there are a lot of steps we have to take to get people in a place where they see depression or bipolar or schizophrenia in the same way that people see heart disease or diabetes," he said. 

Beyond distributing more realistic representations of mental health conditions, the 100-plus images in the Be Vocal Collection are helping to meet a growing need, says Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images. "The demand for this type of content is skyrocketing," she told me. "We've seen on gettyimages.com over the last year, the search term 'mental health' has gone up 70 percent in just one year. So we know that people are hungry for these types of images, to tell these stories, and we're thrilled that the Be Vocal Collection will be part of that storytelling." 

The Be Vocal Collection isn't the first time Getty Images has collaborated on a photography project designed to combat stereotypes. Both LeanIn.Org and Refinery29 have worked with the company to create photo collections that aim to change media representations of women—the Lean In Collection and the 67% Project, respectively. 

Grossman, who played a key role in all three efforts, points to the remarkable power of images. "I think at its best, imagery—especially imagery that's shared widely on social media and in editorial stories—can be a shame solvent," she says. "I'm looking to put forth images that break stereotypes, that bust clichés, and that dissolve stigma, because the more we see images of people who are shown in authentic and true ways and who are sharing their real stories, the more normal these stories become." 

Follow Kate Antoniades on Twitter.

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