Ashley Bravick Photography’s Self Portrait Project
Ever since I can remember, I have never been able to “show” people how depression or anxiety felt. I had all of these intense feelings and trains of thought, that I felt could never be shared with others. Solely because I truly believed people would not understand. It was frustrating, discouraging, and makes a lot of people, like me, not want to talk about the things that go on inside their head.
I stumbled upon a photographer, Maryline Rivard, in a group on Facebook who was challenging herself to create one self portrait a week, for a year. I became so interested in her idea, but knew I needed to find a way to make it into a project that would not only mean something to me, but to other people.
So over the course of a year, I decided to create a project that would depict the thoughts and feelings that come along with the everyday struggles of mental illness, self-image, and addiction.
I started my project with a more whimsical feel and approach, to see what the response would be to me posting pictures of myself every week. My portraits started out lighthearted, and more as a learning process for myself on how to correctly compose and shoot self portraits. I ventured into Rowan Creek Trails in Wisconsin, where I used to play with friends growing up and took my first self portrait. It was the day after my 23rd birthday, and I had decided it would be the perfect time to see how much I could grow not only as an artist in a year, but as a person.
My first thought while editing this portrait was that it was refreshing to be doing art for myself. I have spent years taking photos for wonderful clients, and while it is rewarding, there is often an expectation that comes along with it. With this project, there was truly no expectation from anyone. And it was truly just for me.
It was refreshing and rewarding to start a project for myself, and to be learning something new and challenge myself each week to be creative by thinking of different concepts. I was worried that after one or two portraits, I would become bored or frustrated with the project. I needed to find a way to keep the project new and interesting every week. I decided that mental health was something I could absolutely talk about at least once a week.
There is absolutely no right or wrong way to create art, and the minute I realized that it was so freeing to know whatever I created with this project and put out into the world, it had a meaning to me. The more interesting component of this project, was when I shared portraits on Facebook, I would receive responses that made me feel less alone in how I felt. It was always a surprise at how many people related with me on how I dealt with depression and anxiety.
By the third week of my project, I became inspired to portray someone else’s life experiences through my self portrait project. Someone I knew was battling a serious addiction but was unaware of how critical it was. The state that they were in was so dangerous and it was heartbreaking to see that everyone could see it except them. Continuing to live their life recklessly, a family member of theirs said, “I’m worried. If they don’t wake up from this world they’re in, they are going to die.” The phrase that really stuck with me and inspired this portrait was, “I truly believe they are running out of time.”
The moment artists really stop caring about the backlash or criticism they may face is really when they start creating their best work, I believe. And at first, I spent so much time asking other artists, “Does this make sense to you? Does that say what I want it to?” and every time I was told, “It doesn’t matter what it says to me, it matters what it says to you.” So I never shared the inspiration behind my portraits when I shared them. A lot of people asked me, and a lot of the times I just asked them what they thought. I never wanted any of my portraits to just have one meaning, I wanted them to mean something different to everyone who saw them.
There were a lot of my portraits that didn’t have a meaning when I created them but now looking back they do. A lot of them I wanted to see how far I could go as an artist and see what I could force myself to create. To me, that is why the concept of doing the project for a year made the most sense. To look back and say, “Okay, this is where I started with my art, and now I’m here..what’s next?”
It was most interesting what would inspire me, at first I thought it would be very obvious sources of inspiration. But later it came down to things as simple as a quote, a song, and later on in my project the old roots on the side of my apartment building inspired me.
I had a friend who often found themselves in trouble. I spent a lot of time talking to them and I knew that they were deep down a good person and really had the biggest heart. It was miserable watching someone continue to follow down a path of poor decisions, or the wrong crowd. I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and more time thinking about why I still believed in them. I remembered the quote, “See the light in others and treat them as if it is all you see.” and created this self portrait. It was interesting how I thought at first this project was going to be just about myself, and as it progressed it became about nearly everyone else that I cared for.
Lastly, I wanted to not only talk about the struggles that came with mental health. But I wanted to share my efforts in getting better. I explored the idea of hypnotherapy to combat anxiety-induced habits (and had phenomenal results). It is a lot of work to get better and explore what options are out there to get better. After my first few sessions of hypnotherapy, I was inspired to create a portrait depicting how it felt to me.
Special thank you to Curtis Ryals of Madison Hypnosis Center
Several times I’m asked what courses I took to learn photography/editing techniques. For the most part, I taught myself. But often had help from other artists when it came to bringing my ideas and emotions to life. Growing up with photography and having other artists help me learn has put into perspective how much a little help goes a long way. The best thing we can do once we learn something new, is to share it with someone else and show them how to do it, too. There’s enough room for all artists to succeed and bring their ideas to life and share them with the world.