Samantha Pugsley

Samantha Pugsley is a fine art and commercial photographer from Charlotte, North Carolina (USA). Samantha’s photography stems from her experiences with anxiety and throughout her work she creates conceptual and self-portrait images around living with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

You’re very open about the relationship between your anxiety and photographic practice. Can you tell us a little about what drew you to photography?

I have always been fascinated by photography but I never really understood how powerful it could be until I saw an article on Kyle Thompson. He was creating images like I’d never seen, something honest and personal. In the article, he talked openly about his battle with depression and how photography helped him cope. At that time, I had been recently diagnosed with GAD. Things had gotten really hard for me. My panic attacks were coming more and more frequently. I’d have them at home, in the grocery store, in class, while driving. Some days, I couldn’t even leave the house. Reading about Kyle made me wonder if I could somehow use photography to work through my anxiety.

In what way has your photography practice been therapeutic?

More than anything, I think it allows me to step outside of my anxiety. Seeing something through the lens often helps me put it in perspective. It can be conceptual like when I create a scene that explores my feelings of loneliness or it can be literal like when I take a picture of a scrape on my knee after suffering a panic attack about potential health risks like infection or death. Photography is incredibly versatile. It can be whatever I need it to be in that moment. Sometimes it tethers me to reality during moments of panic. Other times, it’s an escape to another world when this one is too overwhelming.

How do your images come to fruition? Where do your ideas come from and how do you execute them?

Anxiety has a tendency to make your imagination run wild. My mind often spirals out of control into a constant barrage of ‘what-if’s’ and worst case scenarios. I always keep a sketch book nearby because ideas are born from moments like this. Insomnia is a big one too. I used to hate the nighttime because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep and it was prime time for my anxiety to flare up really badly. Now, so many of my ideas come when I’m lying silent and sleepless at night. That’s not to say I don’t still get anxious but it does seem more controlled since I started creating. More generally I’m also inspired by daydreaming, hiking, exploring abandoned buildings, listening to music and driving around aimlessly just looking at the world around me. Once I have an idea, I figure out the best way to photograph it so the theme comes through. Once I have theme, concept, and location, it’s mostly a lot of running back and forth between camera and scene (much of my work is self portrait based) and finally, post work in Photoshop.

I’m struck by the loneliness in your photographs, both in the locations of solitude and singular figures.

Loneliness, isolation, and solitude are all prevalent themes in my work. Anxiety is unique in that you simultaneously want to be alone and don’t want to be alone. Oftentimes I yearn to make connections with others but anxiety makes me physically incapable. On the flipside, sometimes I’m in a social situation and want nothing more than to be alone. It’s a dichotomous relationship that made no sense to me until I started exploring it in my work. I’ve come to learn that there are many different types of ‘alone’ and that there’s a huge difference between being along and being lonely, if that makes sense.

What do you hope for your viewers to take away from the images?

First, I want others who are impacted by mental illness to feel less alone, for them to know that someone out there understands what they’re going through. Second, I want those who aren’t affected by mental illness to gain some comprehension from my work. It can be hard to find the right words to talk about it so I try showing it in hopes it might help people understand.

How has the reaction been to making and sharing such personal work?

Overall, it’s been positive. Fortunately, I’ve found my way into some wonderfully uplifting communities. Most notably, Broken Light Collective ( a safe haven for photographers living with and affected by mental illness to share their work. I’ve been a contributor there since 2013. Flickr has also been instrumental in my artistic growth. I took a break from photography for a while back in 2014 due to some health issues and when I showed back up months later I was welcomed back with open arms by my followers there. There is the occasional naysayer but their comments often remind me why I’ve chosen to share my work in the first place – so our conversations about mental illness can continue to evolve and we can reduce the stigma associated with it.

What are you working on now and what is next?

Currently, I’m in the planning stages of my first series, inspired by some things I’ve worked through in therapy. I’ve also started building a career out of doing what I love. I have occasional client work and I also license my images with a fine art agency. I’m not sure what the future holds or how I’ll find the balance between personal work and commercial work but I know one thing for certain: no matter where my art goes, important conversations about mental health will follow it.
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