How does one photograph depression? Or any other mental health problem for that matter.
Have a read of this article from okayafrica brought to my attention by the counselling psychologist and journalist Aernout Zevenbergen on photographer Thembela ‘Nymless’ Ngayi’s photographs of African men’s struggle with depression.
The importance of bringing to the attention of African men, and women, the realities and consequences of depression is undoubted. Depression is not about witchcraft my people. That, it seems, is what motivated ‘Nymless’ Ngayi’s to undertake his photographic project. As he says in the article, “When one of my peers committed suicide in 2002, the community was quick to say that he was “bewitched” because he was a straight-A student. No one knew he suffered from depression.”
Some explanations mystify instead of clarifying, and explaining depression as caused by witches is one of those hard-to-change explanations to which too many people in Africa continue to hold, even at the cost of death. I don’t mean give up all your superstitions. Some irrational beliefs can serve you very well, like believing a shiny unhuman ‘human hair’ wig makes you pretty. Whatever works for you I say.
But other superstitions are simply too costly. The belief that mental health difficulties are related to an old naked woman flying on a broom is one of those very self-destructive fantasies. An old naked women on brooms is probably the most prevalent representation of a witch. That’s why nudism is not quite encouraged in urban Africa, even though going bare-breasted is an age-old ‘tradition’ in some rural African societies. Anyhow, we need more education and services on mental health.
But something else excites me as much about Ngayi’s project. It is the suggestion it contains about the possible connections we might forge between photographers and psychologists, as well as the potential for such collaboration.
That’s why am so excited about the new African psychologies. In my view, African psychologies are exciting precisely because they can be more than ‘traditional’ psychology by pursuing ever more innovative projects, including collaborative projects, between African psychologists and visual artists (and other kinds of artists, thinkers, and fields) to investigate, understand, mobilise, and transform the lives of people for the better.