How Photography Helped Me With My Mental Health

Caballero scrambler deluxe motorcycle in front of graffiti
During the second half of 2017, I hit a psychological wall. Not suddenly, it had been building for a while. I’d lost interest in almost everything outside of my family. At work, everything was going fine, but I was on autopilot. I was struggling to understand what was going on. I no longer wanted to socialise, go to car shows, build cars, make photographs, paint or cycle – all things that had been a massive part of my life up until then. Was it burn out? Mid-life crisis? All I knew was that I felt sad and unable to find joy in any of my interests.

While sitting at work one night with a couple of colleagues with who I didn’t usually spend much time, the conversation turned unexpectedly into a bit of an open therapy session. It made me realise that a lot was going on in my head, all of which I struggled to make sense of. The act of discussing this openly was a major first step in me realising that I was not myself and needed to seek some help.

After discussing this conversation with my wife, Clare, we agreed that I should seek my doctors’ advice. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait very long for an appointment. After which, I was diagnosed with suffering from anxiety and mild depression. Bam! Not what I was expecting, but at least I knew why I had been feeling the way I had. Now it was time to start working out how I might fix myself.

I decided to take the counselling route, and with the fantastic support from my family, close friends and the local branch of Mind, I started to understand my anxiety. The cognitive behavioural therapy sessions with Mind were super helpful in understanding how I saw and react to everyday situations. The sessions also provided me with tools to help me deal with those situations too. Slowly, with a fair amount of effort, my mental health started improving, and my bouts of anxiety were getting further apart. I wasn’t out of the woods, but I was certainly on a much better path.

Where does photography come into the picture?

During this time, I had spent too many hours looking admiringly at photos of car shows. Wishing I’d been there and that I could make photographs as good as Thomas Fawdry (Three50Six), Amy Shore and Rob Overy. But I wasn’t even going to the events, so I was never going to capture any images, let alone anything near the quality of these folks. I had to snap out of this and, thanks to Clare, as 2018 started, I already had several events booked and paid for. I was determined to improve my photography, which would be my reason to get back out to the shows.

Sample spread of Von Dirk photo book

My Camera, a shield and a key

My camera became a shield. When I needed space, I could hide behind it, but I could drop it down and talk to people when I was comfortable. It helped me rebuild my confidence, remove the fear of going to events, and give me a good reason to attend them.

My camera also became a key to new and unexpected opportunities – like getting to know the people I’d been looking up to, along with being invited to previews and launches.

Covid, lockdown and an opportunity

Lockdown allowed me to reclaim some time, about 3 hours a day, from not commuting to London for work. This, along with empty weekends, afforded me the chance to catch up on writing up stories and sharing some of my photographs. This then led me to want to publish a book of my photographs. That book was not intended to be a portfolio; it was just for me. A printed record of my journey back to feeling human again. It was a collection of individual images, in chronological order and covering 2018 and 2019. I hope to look back over these, learn from my mistakes and be ever grateful for all the love and support from family, friends and strangers.

Sample spread of Von Dirk photo book

A special thank you

I really couldn’t have got through the issues I was having without such a loving and supportive family. Clare, you mean the world to me. I owe you so much. Skye and Max, your maturity and patience are beyond your years; you both make me so proud. I love you all.

Please help me to help others

On Sunday the 23rd of May, I’m riding in The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride with fellow men and women worldwide to raise funds and awareness for prostate cancer and men’s mental health on behalf of Movember.

Men die on average 6 years earlier than women and for largely preventable reasons. The number of men that are suffering is growing, and we need to do something about that. So, before I press my tweed and polish my boots, I’m asking you to join me in raising funds and awareness for these causes by donating what you can for this meaningful cause and to help the men we love, live happier and healthier lives.

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