Creative Conceptual Photos Spark Mental Health Dialogue


In honor of Minority Mental Health Month last July, Letters to Strangers founder and Moonglass Studios fine art photographer Diana Chao took a series of self-portraits to conceptually illustrate her own experience with mental illness.

I was depressed and bipolar starting in middle school, a fact which is met with incredulity and endless questioning each time I publicly mention it. But how can bipolar disorder affect someone so young? Are you SURE you were mentally ill? How would that even feel like to an 8th grader? And then there were the racially-targeted comments. Was it because you had tiger parents and you couldn’t handle it? Is it because you chinks are too submissive? Model minority = model health, too, I suppose.

Well, when I embarked on a project to interview people in the richest and poorest parts of San Francisco about their mental health experience this summer and was blasted with these same questions again and again, I decided to answer them through art.

#1: Cotton Cold

It is often true that in minority cultures, sometimes stigma against mental health feels suffocating. I was tired of mental health being buried beneath bed frames and front doors and backpacks like a silent curse. I was tired of these issues that should be so obvious being so discreetly tossed like last week’s leftovers. Even when the media does mention mental health, it’s almost always from a white context, even though POC experience mental illnesses at the same percentage as whites - which means that some of the people who really need help are not able to see an avenue out reflected to them on screens. In fact, the very manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that psychotherapists use to diagnose patients is based on white patients and neglects the glaring effects culture, immigration, and ethnicity can play in one’s mental health journey. Because of this, I wanted to raise awareness in a way that could potentially appeal to a mass audience: fine art photography.

Therefore, in this photo, I mainly wanted to highlight two things: 1) the suffocating isolation of depression that I experienced; 2) the psychosomatic symptoms of mental illness that most people worldwide have no idea even exist. Specifically, I recalled depression as a period of my life when I felt like I was choking myself full of nothing - like I was hollow on the inside and desperate for anything to fill me, even if that something was as pointless as cotton balls. Note that I am speaking solely from my own perspective, for this reason:

Mental illness affects each person differently. It cannot and should not be generalized to a digestible, comfortable, socially-defined narrow definition that forces those whose experiences fall outside of that often under-informed definition to dismiss their own pain because they are seen as “romanticizing” or “crying for attention” if they are portraying their own reality in a way that is honest to them yet unfortunately outside of society’s myopic understanding of “acceptable” mental illness.

Onto point two: ethnic minorities are more likely to suffer from physical symptoms in relation to mental illness, also known as psychosomatic symptoms, than the white population. The most well-known example I can think of for psychosomatic symptoms, however, is John Watson in Sherlock and his “limp.” In one episode, he suddenly loses his limp, and it turns out he didn’t actually hurt his leg - the limp was a psychosomatic symptom of his post traumatic stress disorder from combat. I wanted to use “cold” in the title of this image because many people don’t realize that mental and physical health are so interlinked that even your immune system can be impacted by it - and one immune system illness is the cold. Of course, that’s not to say anyone who has a cold is mentally ill. That’s certainly not true in almost every case. But I wanted people to see psychosomatic symptoms’ impact outside of the media’s interpretation of PTSD, and I wanted people to be jolted by how it can affect them on such a daily, intimate basis. This becomes all the more urgent when you take into consideration that people with mental illnesses are more likely to report physical symptoms if they’re from a minority group. For example: many Cambodian refugees report chronic neck pain. The doctors fail to find the cause. Turns out the root is in the slave labor many Cambodians underwent during the Cambodian genocide, and how that trauma manifested in physical symptoms. Some Southeast Asian refugees of the Vietnam and Secret War even suffer from psychosomatic blindness because the PTSD is so crippling. The reason behind this is very interesting and still under extensive study, but I highly encourage you to research it.

Almost no education model currently recognizes the existence and importance of psychosomatic symptoms. Even beyond that, someone with a mental illness may not properly take care of their physical self when needs arise, exacerbating any medical concerns they may have. I can only hope that my photo series is the first step in a long journey of mental health education for all of us, myself included.

If we do not even understand the issue, how can we begin to solve it?

#2: Bipolar Balloons

For this image, the idea was to use strong intense opposite colors on the color wheel (red and blue) to show how metaphorically speaking, bipolar disorder to me was an intense proliferation of opposite emotions (depressive deepness and jostling highs). I also taped myself with balloons because it was this idea of constantly being filled up and then, when the air whooshes out, the balloon sputters itself into flat nothing again - just like how I felt after an episode of manic symptoms.

Once, when I showed someone this photo, they just stared at me. “It’s too beautiful. How can it be illustrative of mental illness?” - as if people who are depressed are not capable of desiring beauty. That’s okay - the lack of standardized mental health education and our reliance on media for understanding it has regrettably led to the idea that anything more than black-and-white agony could not possibly be mental illness, even when we all know that human experiences are so diverse that of course mental health, too, would span a spectrum.

I created this image in a way that hurts when I see it. It reminds me of so much pain and sorrow and this desperate desire to be perceived as pretty and worthwhile even as I could feel the air squeeze out of my lungs. I suppose I could say I think it’s beautiful, but only because there’s a touch of sorrow kneaded into that beauty, and to me, that sorrow makes the beauty toxic. It warns me off. It’s not an invitation but rather a forlorn warning that the path may drip of gorgeousness yet ultimately is a surrender of one’s own humanity.

Personally, I think that the more we insist on a grey/black/dark definition of socially defined mental illnesses (often manifested with visible “proof” like self-harm or even suicide), the more we shut down the dialogue necessary for mental health attitudes to change. I have heard countless stories – including my own – where the individual's experience of mental illness didn’t fit what mainstream media told them they should experience, and therefore their experience was left to rot in a soured body. I thought long and hard about how to balance my truth with the trap of romanticization when making this series, and ultimately realized that if I’ve shared my truth the best I can, then if others still see me as romanticizing mental illness, perhaps what they are really saying is that my experience was not legitimate. That my experience was a glorified tale of a mental health journey that is pretty in its delicateness and futile in its shallowness. But my experience was not gentle. My journey was violent. I am a suicide attempt survivor. While I can understand the desire to prevent romanticization of mental illness from taking place, ultimately, I can only tell a mental health story the way I know it. And if that means to show you what it felt like to crave beauty when all I felt was death, to wish for the glitter and colors and party balloons so that I would fall in glimpses of comfort, my pain softened by the simple things in life that made hope possible - then that’s the honest truth I will show, even if it comes at the risk of other people mistaking it as a glorification of my own agony.

#3: Rubber B(r)anded

This image was based on the idea that rubber bands are stretchable, flexible, versatile - until you pull too far and they irrevocably snap. Just like how I felt. I thought that I was capable of handling everything, but eventually in my mental health life I reached a point at which I snapped. I entangled myself in rubber bands because I had felt like I was buried in a shell that people kept trying to break, and when they succeeded, what they saw wasn’t a jovial happy ending - so they were terrified, shuffled away with a “I’m sorry” muffled somewhere in between.

To take this image, I wrapped myself in rubber bands, which sliced red gorges across my hands until they buzzed and I fell a bit numb. It wasn’t painless by any means, but I wanted to remain authentic to my story. Elements of pain that I could safely inject into the photo-taking process would remind me why I have to stay true to how I felt even if others say it’s too “colorful” to be real. This intense, psychedelic explosion of colors - matched with a demure, almost snarling expression in the middle - was exactly my journey. An incessant earthquake of emotions that ripped smiles from my face until I turned bitter, captured, and ultimately bland. I washed myself clean of feelings to bear with the world - I was tired of “brands” people put on me based on what they saw, and as a clean slate, no one knew or dared to label me - but eventually I realized that I was denying myself what made existence worthwhile. Fight. Strength. Resilience. Love. Emotions made me human. I was no longer rubber, I was no longer plastic - I could not afford to be.

#4: Masked Malady

Finally, it was time to take the last photo of the series. I knew this much: I needed to take one more photo in line with the overall theme of this series - something mundane crawling up all over me until I dissolved into it, my essence rubbed clean like soap and my journey a stilted reflection in fine art. It was on the very last day I gave myself to brainstorm that I finally thought of using aluminum foil. By the time I finished taking this picture, the very last rays of sunlight were gone. Just in time.

For this image, I drew on several ideas. First, I loved the classic images of the Raphaelite era. I’d recently backpacked across Europe and saw Caravaggio and so many other great masters up close for the very first time.I wondered if pre-Raphaelite styles would work for Asian skin tones. I also wanted to play on the old Greek symbol of the two masks - one laughing, one crying - so emblematic of theatre and classical culture and, in a strangely fitting way, some mental illnesses. Lastly, I remembered the gorgeous frames that I saw in Florence’s art museums - especially the ones that surrounded artworks owned by the Medici family - and I knew I had to incorporate a simpler, modern idea of that into my photo to conceptualize the ceaseless undulation of time.

Example of the incredible classical frames, featuring The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist (the Doni tondo) by MICHELANGELO

After all, if the classical and the modern can flow and evolve, then it makes perfect sense that emotions and people do, too. That pain ebbs into hope. When time becomes infinitely connected, I can claim that so, too, are experiences. Mental health has mattered since the beginning of consciousness and will matter both intimately within our individual lifetimes and within the broader scope of human existence.

With these influences, and the fact that a large part of my own mental health journey was exacerbated by a clash of Western and Eastern cultures (to see a therapist or follow traditional herbal prescriptions? Is this normal or a weakness?), I decided to symbolically display the identity chaos I felt: I, a foiled existence, wrapped in reflections and light and wrinkled skin, would finally ease off the mask that I wore to keep others unsuspecting of my true human nature inside. This is a world that prides itself on efficiency and machinery, after all. Human emotions are distractions. But I would, in this image, finally unmask my skin-thin smile and emerge to let true emotions show - to humanize my existence. It was a hopeful finale in the sense that I learned to accept myself with all my turbulence and exhaustion. I could be joyous or sobbing so hard I could flood the state of California, but it did not matter - I was out of this glaring foil shell and I could breathe again. There was light. I peeled my shell clean and inhaled in a second chance.

I hope this series and the blog post helps this project achieve its purpose: to create dialogue regarding mental health. I know I didn’t explain everything, but it’s very important to me that I don’t explain every tiny thought I have for a photo because the beauty of art is in its openness to interpretation. Especially because this topic is so personal, I want each person to be able to understand the photos in their own way. So even as I make certain claims and arguments, if you don’t agree with me, well, I hope that at least you liked the art. :)

I also encourage you to learn more about mental health. For example, do you know the difference between bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder? For a long time, I certainly didn’t. But education doesn’t have to start when we’re young. The time to learn, to grow, and to fight is now.

If this series inspired you, made you think, or taught you something, we’d love to know. If you’re currently suffering from mental health concerns, please don’t be afraid to seek help. There is no shame. If therapy is too much too fast, try some of these other resources. Art, too, is a release. The important thing is to remember that you are not alone and that you are worthy of life and joy and peace.

And if you want to do something? Start a L2S chapter. Partner site. Join our core team. Volunteer as a health worker. Submit a letter. Fill out our surveys to get your insights heard nationwide (survey for personal mental illness experience; for friend/peer's experience; for family member's experience).

Together, we can shape the future dialogue of mental health.

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