John Mannell

John Mannell is a London based photographer using photography to combat depression and anxiety. Portrait Per Day sees him interacting with strangers on the streets of London in a personal project that highlights the therapeutic nature of photography.

What first attracted you to photography and how did you get into it?

When in secondary school I had a few friends that loved the film Clerks by Kevin Smith and we watched it over and over and wanted to get into making our own films. We looked at the local college and aged 14 signed up to the closest course we could which was black and white photography. And although not cinema, I was hooked and to this day haven’t actually shot anything other than still photography. Since then I have taken various courses from GCSEs, A Levels and City and Guilds. It’s been a great way at any age to meet new people and have a project to keep me creative when I really need it.

When I was at night school my final project for my city and guilds was a look into my experiences of depression. The image is a metaphor for so many experiences in my journey. When I started to use photography as therapy I took photos at night when no one was around. It felt like a daunting and somewhat vulnerable task. I had no way to explain this other than a photo of me taking the fear head on. You feel like there is no end or hope sometimes but step by step you can feel progress even if the end goal isn’t really clear.

You’ve been open about your anxiety and its effect on you. How did your anxiety initially begin and what impact did it have on your day to day life?

I have always been an anxious person. When I was younger I would just assume it was being shy. There were times I would throw up with overwhelming anxiousness and couldn’t bear being centre of attention. When I grew older it passed somewhat as when I went to university difference was somewhat celebrated and I felt like I could be myself.  At this time I would just get anxious about travelling. Then when I left university I had a rare bowel disease and had a significant amount of my small intestine removed and some of my large intestine removed too. I felt half the man I was before as even simple tasks became more effort. Unfortunately after this I would regularly get angry or anxious and never dealt with it properly. Eventually I had a bit of a break down and despite not wanting to admit it was diagnosed with depression and put on medication. At this point I couldn’t leave the house unless it was work. What I have never been able to understand is I could attend work and carry out my daily tasks but the moment I got home the outside world was so daunting. It was like I had safety between the walls of my own home and the walls of work. Repetition of the same daily process felt like I was doing well but in fact I was just forcing myself to do nothing but work, eat and sleep. Eventually I managed to get counselling via the NHS and after getting angry and frustrated when having one on ones I then got offered group therapy. The first time I had openly spoke to others suffering from similar emotions, and it made me realise i wasn’t the only one that felt that way. We used CBT as way to manage problems and due to my love of photography it was suggested I went out to take a photo each week and then go back to show the group. This was immediately rewarding and I had instant progress. This was my vehicle to getting out in the world and without it not sure I would have managed to stop taking anti-depressants or in what I feel is to have beaten the crippling side to anxiety.

In Portrait Per Day you’re stopping strangers in the street to ask for a portrait. This can be a challenge even for the most out-going of people. How do you approach people? How do you manage rejections?

So when I started taking photos for anxiety it was not an easy process. It also wasn’t of people which is most ironic. I would actually go out on pre-planned trips to take photos of the country side or even London in the anti-social hours when no one was about. The fear always was that people would be able to tell I was depressed. The fact is no one ever knew. But by hiding behind a camera I felt comfortable to get outside. As I broke my routine slowly but surely the anxiousness disappeared and so did the medication. I remember taking photos of people and always wanted to do a project but never had the guts to do so. In 2016 my now wife suggested I took on a photography challenge as I was so stressed with work and couldn’t get on a course that taught me what I wanted. I came up with the idea for Portrait Per Day and not quite sure I appreciated what a huge task it would be or my wife. Luckily she supported me from start to end and it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Anyway, that is a the side step to the question about how I ask for a photo. When the project started it was awful. I couldn’t look people in the eye and found asking elderly people far easier. I explained I had a portrait challenge as I couldn’t study it at a college and the best way for me to improve was to take a photo every day. An honest photo that wasn’t over edited or pre planned and most people were really nice. That said when I started I would regularly get ten or more people in a day say no. As the project has evolved I have either got far better at judging people that would say yes or better at dealing with people. You learn very quickly that rejection is not necessarily personal. You also learn that every time you meet a person that is rude or judgmental you will meet ten or so that are lovely. My days are enriched by the stories of others and the interaction of each photo I take.

This is Giorgio or as he is known Big Ginger Beard. You meet a lot of positive people and this is one of them. Always smiling and always cheering people up. It isn’t the best photo of him but took a lot of effort to stop him smiling for all of five seconds.
Every now and then I take a photo of someone that shows them as I saw them not just visually but personality too. I had a really long day at work and had messy hair, dirty jeans and scruffy top. You could think I’m on the sympathy vote but the reference is to try and show the contrast between me and this man named Devine. He is a security guard and has worked as equally a long day as I have but looked unbelievably smart. His demeanour was proud yet calm and he spoke gently. He was kind enough to walk along the street to pose near some light coming from the Morley’s chicken shop to help take the photo. Anyway, I like this one as from the brief chat we had shows himself as I saw him.

Why has it been important for you to share your story and the photographs with others?

Well I never planned on sharing my story to be honest. The first time I told my parents was when my dad had gone through a difficult time himself and I wanted him to know that I related to what he was feeling. In my final year at college in 2015 — 2016 I decided to complete a project based on my experiences with depression. I shared this with my dad and for me was a weight of my shoulders, that he knew how I had felt and how I no longer suffered from depression. I was very lucky to meet Reverend Kate Bottley from Gogglebox and BBC Radio 2 and we had a great chat about my project and her project she had about the time celebrating women. I am not quite sure why I mentioned about my experiences with anxiety and photography but I did. Perhaps I was nervous and verbal diarrhoea took over but I did. We spoke for probably less than ten minutes but it made her day and she shared the story with others too. This led to the BBC asking me questions about my project and a great article for Mental Health Awareness Week. I genuinely did not want my project to be about mental health awareness. My project was about helping me grow and get better at photography. The fact it is it’s now become more than I could have hoped for. When I joined group counselling it helped me that others felt many of the same feelings I experienced. The article by BBC was that to many others. All of a sudden people related to my experiences and gave them comfort. I guess I never appreciated the need to be open about it until the day I helped others and am very lucky that I stumbled into this. Some people have made a far more conscious effort to help people, mine I guess was for selfish reasons that just somehow became public.

Have you got any particular favourite portraits? What’s the story behind them?

My favourite portrait to date is of an elderly lady called Evelyn. It was the first day she had left home on her own after her husband had passed away. She had been really nervous about going out on her own so had arranged to meet some friends in Sutton. I saw her in a cafe and decided to pop in and ask for a photo. We chatted for about 45 minutes before her friends came to meet her and I learnt about her love of photography, her husband, and how she could tell her daughters she had been chatted up by some young man. I made her day and she made mine. I also have met an amazing range of talented or generous people who I am blessed to have met. One of which is Patrick who later made mine and my groomsmen’s wedding suits.  Oddly my best photos perhaps technically are not always my best photos.

This is possibly my favourite encounter so far. I had a day in lieu and tried to make the most with some DIY, a little run and then a pint in the local pub. On my way back I walked past the “Delight Cafe” and saw the lovely and smiley Evelyn completing a cross word and hesitated as didn’t want to disturb her so I walked on. After getting several no’s and walking several steps down the road I thought why not just ask. I popped in and she kindly said yes. She soon told me the very sad story that this was the first day out with friends since she lost her husband. When she said that I couldn’t just grab a photo and as I had time I got her a cup of tea and we had a chat. Turns out she is a bit of a photographer herself and told me about how every year she has a green bird with red neck come and visit and she gets a photo every time. Her daughter found out it was some sort of wood pecker. I said the problem with cameras is that they are too heavy to carry around but she said she just uses her phone. She is more up to date with technology than me. When I was there she saw loads of people and had several people come try help with the crossword. She said her children wouldn’t believe her that she got chatted up by a young man so I gave her my card and said they can email me for the photo. I hope she had a fun day out, I did as not many people laugh at what I say and she did. I had two photos, one posed doing the cross word as I saw her and the other her laughing looking out the window with her wedding and eternity rings still on.

What impact has the project had on your anxiety?

Yes I get nervous and anxious but I have learnt by use of CBT that when anxiety takes effect that I am challenging my comfort zone. When I approach a person I always get nervous. But the feeling I use as a reward. Does that make sense? I guess what I mean is by feeling anxious in a situation you choose be in means you are pushing yourself. That feeling that once would feel crippling you can use as liberation. I might be talking what seems alien to others but it makes sense to me. I haven’t suffered from crippling anxiety for a number of years now but by constantly challenging my comfort zone I have learnt that in general people are so kind. Yes we will meet a angry or rude person but also you have think logically. How would you deal with someone asking for a photo when you’ve had a bad day?

What does it feel like when you’re looking for people to take part, photographing them, and editing the images?

So I now treat this time as my down time. I rarely get a proper lunch break, I often don’t get home until late or am trying to please too many people. It’s who I am and I take comfort in spinning plates. But for me, having a project that people enjoy and can associate with, forces me to get that time to relax and do what I want. I often look for a “friendly” looking person. This may be a little smile as I walk past or see them laugh when speaking to a friend. It may just be a person that looks amazing and I know will take a good portrait. By amazing it may be clothes, hair, a nice elderly person that wears glasses, or smoke can make for a great shallow depth of field. There are so many things that makes someone stand out but their stories are what lets me connect to them. When editing photos I want to do them justice and I guess I get a buzz when the photo shows what I saw in a person.

What have you learnt since you started Portrait Per Day?

That more people are often good than bad, that a lot of people suffer with anxiety or depression. That talking helps. That people generally want to help. And most importantly by being creative I have an outlet which stops me from feeling anywhere like I once did.

One of my favourite photos not just because Yasmine had the most amazing red hair but equally impressive attitude to fashion at a young age. She said that people often judge her for what she wears and how she looks but to be and do what makes you feel yourself is a skill/quality that some people can never achieve. I saw Yasmine having some lunch with her friend and rushed to ask for photo. Glad I did and despite still being a student reckon this one can far with her positive approach to living. Well that and her near unrivalled ability to keep a straight poker face on request.
As I was driving along earlier I saw Julian sat in the horribly cold weather and he looked and smiled at me and gave me the thumbs up as he could hear my music playing. I thought not much more of it but then when I went on my coffee break I thought I would walk around the corner to see if he was there as I knew he would make a great portrait due to the white on his face but when I got closer the match sticks in his beard too. At first I felt bad asking for the photo as you are making an image which to some extent plays on someone’s misfortune by being homeless. But by the same coin to not ask him as I would ask anyone else would be excluding him from what has become a people led project. I sat and spoke to him and we had a cup of tea together as he told me how he used to be a professional dancer and his days back in Jamaica when he was younger. Its horrible that he has ended up on the street but I guess what makes it worse is how so many people walk past and just ignore (me included on so many occasions). He was such a nice guy. Christmas is not a nice time for anyone on their own and I guess if we can just give that one cup of warm tea it might help them feel that Christmas spirit we all love.

Are there any other ideas/projects you’d like to start that combine photography and mental health?

I would love to talk and encourage other creative people to carry out their own projects. Being creative is an incredibly helpful way to deal with mental health issues. If I didn’t have my creative outlet I wouldn’t still have the great group of friends I have or family, new and old. My wife who has the patience of a saint. By being creative I am less anxious, less angry, and far more able to deal with life on a daily basis. My project was not about mental health. It was about me. It’s become more than I could have ever hoped. But If I could help others be creative, and help children be open about their feelings then I would be so happy. We live in a world full of great people that often are too shy to share about what they are proud of. If I can share their story or raise a single smile then that’s good enough. Anything more is a huge bonus.

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