Follow these simple and insightful steps for portraying mental illness in stock images in meaningful and respectful ways.

Mental illness is a term that encompasses a wide variety of conditions that affect one out of every six adults in the United States. The vast majority of mental illnesses don’t present any outward symptoms, which makes discussing and photographing them especially challenging. Photographing non-visible mental illness requires a deep understanding of mental illness and how it affects those who live with it.

Here are some tips on taking authentic images of everything from anxiety to PTSD to generalized, postpartum, and situational depression.

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Anyone Can Have a Mental Illness
Photographing non-visible mental health means challenging yourself to put yourself in the shoes of your subject. Offset Image by Louise Oligny / Image Point France.

Avoid Outdated Cliches and Stigmas 

Whether you’re discussing or photographing mental health, it is important to avoid outdated stigmas and cliches. Counseling and therapy are regular, healthy parts of life, and terms like anxiety and depression should be discussed respectfully yet freely. Photo tropes like a black-and-white image of someone sitting in the corner, head-in-hands are overly-simplified misunderstandings of what depression or anxiety actually looks like.

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Avoid Outdated Cliches and Stigmas
Avoid outdated cliches and stigmas. Offset Image by Science Photo Library.

Whether you are photographing portraits as part of a larger profile or shooting specifically for articles focusing on mental illness, it is important to capture the human narrative and subtle nature of mental illness, not to lean on shadowy photos and dramatic, insulting poses. 


Recognizing the Effects of Mental Illness 

Mental illnesses manifest themselves in a number of different ways, which vary by diagnosis, situation, and person impacted. As society becomes more comfortable candidly discussing mental health, we are more aware of everyone from professional athletes to next-door neighbors who live with mental health challenges. Whether it is generalized anxiety or PTSD with situational triggers, daily life with a mental illness can be symptom-free or entirely restructured in order to minimize potential triggers or challenges. 

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Recognizing the Effects of Mental Illness
Daily life with a mental illness can be completely invisible. Image by eldar nurkovic

Often, when high-profile individuals are interviewed and discuss their own mental health challenges, the photographer chooses to focus on portraits and capturing the subject in their element. This is respectful and appropriate but may miss some of the most important, candid moments in the day. This can be casual morning meditation over coffee, attending yoga classes, spending time with an emotional support animal, or engaging in a healthy activity like exercise or hands-on crafts.

It is the job of the interviewer and/or photographer to respectfully ask questions and understand the subject’s challenges and coping strategies. By understanding the challenges and strategies for coping with them, the photographer can respect the illness and capture the invisible duality of daily life with mental health. 

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Capturing Life's Challenges...and Coping Strategies
Ask your subject appropriate questions when photographing them. Image by odseriku

Photographing Mental Health and Mental Illness 

Photographing mental illness means photographing a  person, shooting their portrait while understanding their whole story. If you’re going to use photographic methods to convey a sense of complex emotion, use sections of shadows and light in a creative way while avoiding cliches like dark corners or pensive silhouettes framed by windows. Instead, shoot portraits with unique diffused lighting. Try exposing for highlights and showing the complex beauty of the places where light and dark intersect, even across a person’s face.

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Photographing Mental Health and Mental Illness
Capture your subjects story. Offset Image by Cavan Images.

Represent People as a Whole

Understand and honor both the individual’s struggles and triumphs, and celebrate them both in equal measure with the everyday moments in-between. A mother happily holding her child may be in the throes of postpartum depression while simultaneously enjoying the unbridled joy of motherhood. A man throwing the stick for his dog may be in his happy place while fighting off the darkness that creeps in with every blink. Photos often tell complex stories by freezing and framing a very small moment in time. As photographers, it is our responsibility to honor and celebrate our subjects with our unique creative sensibilities. 

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Use Imagery to Represent People as a Whole
It’s the photographer’s job to capture images that tell a story. Image by Maskot Images/

Capture Who the Subject Really Is

Many mental illnesses are totally invisible. So, photographers face an interesting choice when capturing images focusing on this subject.

Sometimes, the most appropriate way to capture mental illness is by acknowledging that it is truly “invisible” and photographing the subject for who they are. Other times, it is more powerful to capture and deeply understand the subtle ways in which invisible mental illnesses manifest themselves and the ways they affect daily life. Even invisible challenges can create visible scenes that captivate the viewer.

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Capture Who the Subject Really Is
Try to understand the complexities of mental illness. Image by yamel photography.

Context is Everything

My own relationship with my dog, who joined me in counseling sessions for over a year following a traumatic brain injury, is both visibly meaningful to my overall wellbeing and takes on a far richer context once explained. My dear friend who struggles with postpartum depression has stood for incredibly moving portrait sessions with each of her two children, making for images that have even more layers than the innate beauty of a parent-child bond.

Representing Mental Illness Through Stock Imagery — Context is Everything
Context helps tell an accurate story. Offset Image by Cathy Ronalds.

Photographing mental illness requires the same approach as an in-depth photo essay, which is to say a lot of research and understanding before shooting contextual portraits and lifestyle shots. The best way to portray “invisible” ailments is by recognizing the ways they affect the subject’s life and then using your photographic vision to tell that story.

As the public conversation continues to facilitate more honest conversations surrounding mental health, the ways we discuss and portray it will change for the better. With these tips, you can enact progress through your photography.


Top image by AJP.

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