​how one photographer documented her life to cope with her mental illness

In a series of intimate self-portraits, the British photographer Alice Joiner traces her journey through an eating disorder, drug use, and depression to her ultimate recovery.

by Alice Joiner
Jan 10 2017, 4:05pm

Living with mental illness is one of the most frightening and lonely ways of being. I know this because I suffered from an eating disorder for five years, as well as depression, anxiety, and a crippling social drug habit, which took a hold of my life. In my suffering I subconsciously found a way to tell the world that I was not OK. Despite the fact that I was drawn to and fell in love with a silent medium and didn't share the photographs that I took for many years, I slowly built up a body of work. It has evolved through my healing and now the present day, and informs everything I create as an artist and as a woman in recovery.

I am 23 years old and approaching my four-year recovery anniversary. I first started taking photographs as a young teenager when I was at boarding school in Brighton. I enjoyed hiding in the darkroom for hours, nurturing and slaving over my prints and negatives. It was soothing to me and I could hide away in my own safe space during what was one of the most difficult times of my life. At this point, I was documenting my illness but I never shared these images with those around me.

At the time I was so obliterated by my illness that I couldn't understand that I was unwell. I was unable to see it, yet I knew so well that something was very wrong. I felt so deeply uncomfortable in my body. I had never been educated on eating disorders or mental illness in school, and I never knew you could be in treatment for them. I certainly didn't believe that I had one for years.

I lived in a world which was purely black and white. I drew huge black and white drawings, I took black and white photographs, and I wore all black most of the time. Drawing and darkroom printing involve labor, care, patience, and time. Since I have recovered, I haven't felt the desire to work in either of these mediums because they were always about an element of control and hiding away. This doesn't mean to say that I will never return to them, but for now they can't give me what I need. I have found beauty in the snapshot quality of my work; it is instantaneous and holds far more power and confidence for me than anything before.

As I started to slowly recover, I found light and color to be the most fascinating and healing qualities of all. I was never able to appreciate how beautiful and healing these elements of my life are. When you have lived in chaos for so many years, and suddenly you are learning to slow down, you see what was before you all along. For me, this was every element of being alive that I was unable to enjoy previously. I began to get to know myself in the most profound way, and as a result I was able to be vulnerable and let people in more than ever before.

Over the past few years I have been able to open up to and understand the cyclical nature of my life, built up of pleasure, pain, love, fear, awakening, suffering, and a profound sense of purpose in everything I do and every photograph I take. Human connections, female sexuality, women, relationships, intimacy and healing are all driving forces for what I create, but I will never not be fascinated by and drawn towards what mirrors this in life for me. My own personal experiences of pain and trauma and the healing from this inform not only my work but also every decision I make today.

We live in a world where women are told to be highly competitive with one another. We are told that you have to look a certain way, own a specific product, have huge amounts of money, and know all the right people to be happy and successful. Typical images of women in the media state that we must be beautiful, skinny, with toned and hairless bodies. We are encouraged to believe in separation from one another instead of oneness at a time when we have never needed unity and sisterhood more. We fantasize and project onto others what we want for ourselves and we focus on what we do not have, ultimately creating more of it. We are met with the often-fraudulent online presence of those who seek out the use of social media as a means to create an image of something they are not, and yet we so often believe it.

As a photographer I feel it is my duty to remain truthful to my purpose and my desire to focus on the physical self, intimacy and human interaction. As my healing has changed, so has my work and so has my perception of myself. I began to photograph my body as a way of seeing it outside of myself, and accepting it. I began to feel healthier, sexier, more feminine and light, and I learned to trust the process. If I ever take a photograph of myself today, which isn't that often, it is always in celebration of something. 

I think that my body tells a story and I am proud of that. I choose to not criticize my body or myself because it has fought so hard to get me here today. It has seriously carried me to hell and back many times when I didn't think I would survive. So why on earth would I hate my body? If I wasn't in my body then who would be? As a result, I have never felt more empowered and beautiful than I do today. I can now share what I have learned and created in the hope that we can change attitudes towards stigmatized mental illness and the way that women are portrayed in our society.

Women are innately creative beings, and what a privilege it is to be able to express myself with my own creativity and build a life for myself with it, while aiming to contribute to the changing conversation towards us as human beings and as women. Through slowing down and learning to be silent within, I have found a well of purpose and creativity that I never even knew existed. It is available to every single one of us, you just have to go out and take it. Ultimately, what recovery and self-acceptance have taught me is that there is no single thing outside of you that can make you happy in the long run. No person, object, interaction, or intake can give you more than you can already give yourself. 

Photography too has taught me this because it makes me present and awake. This is a beautiful way to live because suddenly everything you have outside of yourself becomes the greatest addition to what you already have within. Everything you need and want already exists within you. If there is a voice within you that is telling you to get better, you have to listen, act, and trust it will be OK, because it truly will. It is all about coming home, unlearning fear, and remembering love.


Text and photography Alice Joiner

alice joiner