The award-winning photographer and filmmaker was selected to make images for The Be Vocal Collection, an initiative challenging stereotypes around mental health conditions.
Looking back over your photojournalism and film projects, what’s your favorite?
I don’t have this one project or this one moment that is my favorite. I used to enjoy more being part of big stories, where history is being made, and that’s changed for me—now it’s more to tell stories that are quiet or untold.
More like The Be Vocal Collection, in fact?
Shooting people with different mental health conditions across the country was immediately something that was really interesting to me. I came in knowing that these are people who are much more complex than a diagnosis. I share my life with someone who has mental health challenges and she’s first of all my lover and a great friend and an amazing person.
What was your goal for The Be Vocal Collection?
The main idea was to portray these folks as regular, beautiful, human people that have up times and down times. And to not have only an image of people ripping their hair out or something that’s so over the top.
So how do you portray depression without that kind of stereotypical image?
Depression or any mental health issue doesn’t have one face. We wanted to show that complexity. I did want to capture some of the loneliness and the sadness and the other issues that come with it, but at the same time, through The Collection, I wanted to try hard to show that that’s not all they have.
Depression or any mental health issue doesn’t have one face.
Was anyone experiencing mood symptoms when you were there?
I definitely saw some moments that were very hard. Part of the job of a photojournalist is trying to infiltrate very private moments. You tiptoe around and try to capture that in a way that’s still fair and decent to your subjects, but also real.
What did you look for as far as photo subjects?
We tried to capture a collective picture that said, “This is possible among anyone,” and we tried to make it relatable to different groups of people. Mental illness could live within old, young, black, white, brown, wealthy, not wealthy. There were African-Americans who said, “If I would have said growing up that I have a mental health disorder, it wasn’t acceptable.” So to me, bringing in people who weren’t even allowed to talk about it is a very powerful thing.
And the participants were comfortable with you following them around?
We set up calls beforehand—a half-hour to an hour of me asking questions and mainly listening to them, and them asking what we’re trying to capture. So the first time we met, we felt like we knew each other a little bit.
Still, it’s pretty brave of them.
There’s this bond of trust you’re given as a photographer. When someone allows you to take a picture, there’s something strong about that. When it’s in this context, I salute them even more. There’s a shame factor that shouldn’t be there. We shouldn’t encourage people to hide, we should encourage people to talk about it. Speaking up is the first step to making it better.
The Be Vocal Collection consists of 150 photographs available free to all users from Getty Images. It is an initiative of Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc., five mental health advocacy organizations, and entertainment star Demi Lovato. “Too often the imagery we see in media or online sensationalizes or romanticizes mental illness,” Lovato said in a statement. “We are proud to show what mental health in America can look like when people get the support they need.”
Printed as “Back Chat: Shaul Schwarz”, Spring 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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