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The Mental Health Photographer – My Personal Mission of Mental Health Education

This is a guest post courtesy of Hajni Petrof of LittleDawn Photography

The Mental Health Photographer

“Children Mental Health” by Little Dawn Photography

Mental health is more and more popular nowadays, and that’s something very close to my heart. I’m also sure that I’m not alone in this. While it is nice to see that celebrities are talking about their struggles more openly, the media and healthcare system found their voice, but there is still a lot of misunderstanding and judgment around this subject.

What I see is that people who suffer are still not getting the right support. Sadly, this is also a personal experience. And I believe that I can’t talk about my project without letting you all into my past. (TW: Mental Health, Suicide)

I did learn psychology as part of my university teaching degree back in Hungary, but I only started to dive into the subject much deeper when I experienced a major mental health breakdown. Back in 2012, I was photographing here and there, mainly for my joy as a hobby photographer. The same year, I moved to the UK with my partner. The impact of the culture shock was severe anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. I couldn’t go to the shop without a panic attack, so I became very isolated and, sadly, I came across suicidal thoughts, too.

That was the first time I have experienced the absolute lack of support in the healthcare system. I went to the GP to seek help. The doctor told me to “go and do yoga.” Literally. The following week I searched the internet for any psychologists who were UK-based and spoke Hungarian since I did not speak English at all that time. By the time I found one, I had pretty much diagnosed myself, and the therapist agreed with my self-diagnosis. It was a very difficult start, but one evening – out of impulse – I bought my first DSRL camera, a Canon 1000D, because the only thing that made sense at that time was photography. This learning gear was my shield when I went anywhere – it helped me through my panic attacks and gave me purpose. At that time, the purpose was to survive. Today, I know that what saved my life was my knowledge.

The Mental Health Photographer

“POSTPARTUM” Model: Mari Kerrigan HMU: Rebecca Cameron

One afternoon back in 2013, I was sitting in the garden and promised myself that one day, when I finally felt better, I would somehow connect photography to counseling. I did not know how, but it has been an on and off ache inside me ever since.

Life went on, and I became more and more obsessed with photography. Meanwhile, I found more purpose around me. I built a life, learned English, educated myself about mental health and, temporarily, I forgot about my promise to myself.

Then, in 2016, my son was born and I had been thrown back into the rabbit hole. I suffered from postnatal depression, which forced me to accept medication. This time, the GP took me seriously. I also had counseling sessions, which did help me a lot. I did learn not only to know my issues, but to understand them, too. I started photographing my son, and that was the first time I thought about photography as more than just a hobby.

Two years later, I was still just playing with the idea of building a business. I did some photoshoots here and there, came up with different project ideas, and found out how much confidence I can give to others through photography. But, I held myself back. That’s when I learned about self-sabotage and went for another round of counseling to find out the reasons. I did gain more understanding.

2020, Covid-19 pandemic. Life became difficult for everyone, and the pandemic’s impact on people’s mental health was shocking to see. This was also the year when I joined Summerana and started learning through the amazing tutorials I found. I did refuse to sabotage myself, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by wonderful people. People who weren’t only supportive, but accepted me. Despite all the overexposure, the overly-done eyes, and my lack of knowledge in photography. I saw photographs that took my breath away, and I asked myself about a million times, Will I ever be able to create images like that?

I started my pandemic project called “Through the windows,” the first mental health-orientated photo project of mine.

The Mental Health Photographer

“Expectation vs Reality” by Little Dawn Photography

In 2021, things have sped up drastically. Thanks to the Summerana Team, I did grow a lot, and could finally start my mental health project. I was able to create my style in photography, and it gave me the courage to start my own family and portrait business, too, which I’m still building. However, I felt that my business was not in line with my mental health project – the photos didn’t fit into my portfolio.

In March, a wonderful lady whom I had worked with on a photoshoot before lost her 11 year old son unexpectedly. The whole community did try to help and I have been involved in different fundraising events as a photographer. I watched her daily fight for the support she should have received naturally, and I felt that I had to do something.

I recognised that knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to acceptance, and acceptance should lead to support. I realized that the system is failing its people, not because it lacks any knowledge or understanding, but because it is stuck on that level. These two principles are indeed important, but my experience is that support can only come from acceptance.

Thanks to Kimberley and Liam, I finally saw the way – my way – to connect photography to psychology and counseling. This is how “The Mental Health Photographer,” my mental health project, was born.

The Mental Health Photographer

“BIPOLAR” by Little Dawn Photography Model: Reece Batten HMU: Claire Cox

In the beginning, I did use self-portraits to raise awareness of different mental health issues and mental illness. It was also very therapeutic. I have started analyzing the issues around stigma and medications. The concept was to create eye-catching, disturbing and surprising visual art which would encourage viewers to read the image titles and the descriptions. On my social media pages, I always add a reliable source of information and call my audience to action to read the articles. This is how I plant the knowledge seeds which automatically lead the audience to understand the issues. Also, every single article has been selected carefully, and all of them are calling for acceptance. And I do hope that this acceptance will bloom into supportive thoughts. These images will find their way to the right eyes, and those eyes will not only see but know, understand, accept and support.

So people like me will get help instead of being sent to a yoga class with a panic disorder.
So people like Kimberley will get serious PTSD support without being forced to pay a fortune.
So those who must get medical help will not be shamed and blamed that they are weak because they can not cope without medication.
So governments and the healthcare systems will open their eyes and realize that knowledge and understanding are not equal to acceptance and support. That they must do more. That a broken arm is not worse than a broken soul.

The Mental Health Photographer

“Anorexia Nervosa” by Little Dawn Photography Model: Reece Batten HMU: Jade Harding

Hajni Petrof
LittleDawn Photography
The Mental Health Photographer
Weston-super-Mare, UK


This article was featured in Summerana Magazine | May 2022

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