ex-model kimbra audrey uses photography to cope with her depression

The model-turned-photographer opens up in a piece for i-D about how she uses self-portraiture to explore her issues with mental health.

by Kimbra Audrey
17 May 2017, 3:30pm

Broken by years of battling depression, addiction, and a traumatic stint in a psychiatric ward during a turbulent decade-long modeling career  finding work in high fashion before moving into more commercial agency work  Kimbra Audrey turned to photography and built herself back together again. Here, Kimbra discusses the importance of her creative therapy.

"I've suffered from depression my entire life. I was raised in a broken home and began modeling when I was 15, in Seattle, as a way to escape and become financially independent. I always loved photography and fashion, and modeling seemed like the most lucrative job you could have as a teenager.

I graduated high school early and moved to NYC by myself when I was 17 to pursue a career in modeling. I did some high fashion modeling when I was younger, but found the pressure to be a size zero too challenging. So then I signed with a more commercial agency and started doing more commercial work. However, I never felt good — something was always wrong with me, I was either too big, too thin, too tall, too ethnic, too brunette, the list goes on and on. For the first few years, I had trouble keeping an agency because of my changing weight. My self-esteem was shattered. I hated myself when I looked in a mirror. So I learned how to be an actress and act confidently for a client when inside I really just wanted to cry. I became extremely depressed and vulnerable, but didn't think I could do anything else. 

When I was 19, I overdosed on drugs and alcohol and nearly died. My liver failed and the doctors told me that if I didn't get a transplant I was going to die. I was put on the top of the list, I waited a week, getting worse every day, and finally after two blood transfusions my condition started to improve. It was a miracle. I spent a month in the hospital, two weeks of which were spent in an inpatient psychiatry unit. It was one of the worst times of my life.

Only 19, I was the youngest person there. I was stripped naked and searched. I was watched in the shower. There were no doors, no locks, no privacy. My roommate was an 80-year-old woman named Katherine who thought everyday was her birthday and woke up screaming in the night and had to be sedated. I wasn't allowed to go outside, to breathe fresh air, or exercise. The food was inedible and most days I didn't eat at all. Fights would break out, patients would scream at the nurses, scream at each other, scream at the walls. I was forced to take medication that was making me feel worse instead of better, but if I wanted to leave this place I had to prove that I was, by their standards, "mentally well" — but the very place I was living was making me crazy.

When I was released, I decided to completely change my lifestyle. I was still physically very sick, my liver took nearly a year to fully recover. I stopped drinking, became vegan, and started practicing yoga. I was so glad I didn't die. I felt grateful to be alive, a feeling that I hadn't had in years. The simplest things gave me so much joy, to be able to breathe fresh air. I found true bliss behind my camera. I studied black and white film photography in high school and have always loved to shoot whatever I could, mostly my friends.

After modeling for a friend a few years ago, she told me that she too had become very depressed from modeling; she traveled all over the world, never staying more than a few months in one city, always broke, tired, and lonely. She began taking self-portraits and it really helped her depression. I immediately went home to shoot, more as an experiment than anything else, and it was hard. I didn't even own a tripod — I used to balance my camera on a chair or on some books. And it was challenging to be the photographer and the subject. At moments it felt awkward, but it was also liberating.

Self-portraits gave me the power to create photographs the way I saw myself. I shoot only on film and I don't edit my images. In the modeling industry nearly every photo is edited — when I was a model sometimes I wouldn't even recognize myself. I wanted to make honest images of myself for no reason other than my own mental clarity, and I began to shoot nearly everyday. It felt incredible to release my emotions into a photograph, whether that was joy, anger, or sadness.

Through my self-portraits I learned how to be vulnerable — and how to be okay with being vulnerable — and how to see it as something positive. I've learned how to love my body, instead of constantly feeling not good enough because I wasn't a size 0. I now feel comfortable in my skin and appreciate my body the way it is, something I hadn't felt in years. I feel frustrated that our society is so obsessed with perfection — to have perfect make-up, a perfect body, a perfect life. Why can't there be beauty in imperfection? Why can't people just be natural and love who they are?

Documenting my depression has helped me more than any doctor or medication ever has. However, my depression never completely went away, I don't know if it ever will. I had another suicide attempt last year. Luckily, my best friend collected me from the hospital so I didn't have to stay there for an extended period of time. The mental health system that is in place right now sets people up to fail. Most of the time you are written a prescription and sent out the door, there's no follow-up, no discussion about other ways of treatment. It's been a struggle to treat my depression and I've been willing to try anything; medication, therapy, acupuncture, exercise. I've finally gotten to a place where I know how to manage it better so I don't get to a place where I want to hurt myself.

I also quit modeling last year after nine years and moved to Paris to focus solely on my photography. I try to take self-portraits every day. I even built a darkroom in my apartment so I can process and print my film at home myself. Taking the image, mixing the chemicals, developing, drying, printing, and scanning, it's all part of the therapeutic process for me.

My photographs can sometimes be quite dark, but it's very important for me capture all my emotions good or bad. I've always had trouble articulating myself, for me it's easier to take a self-portrait."


Text and photography Kimbra Audrey

kimbra audrey