Sixteen years ago, Elise Sanford took it upon herself to use what she knew — art and photography — to create a program that changed the way individuals were viewed and changed individual’s capacity to contribute to the community. The Athens Photo Project (APP) began in 2001 and, since its opening, has developed a peer-supported environment for those with mental illness. The program embraces the arts and uses them as a mechanism to support those who are on their journey through mental health recovery.
“Mental health is an ongoing journey,” Executive Director Nate Thomson says. “We distinguish ourselves from other programs because we offer art-based programming, not art therapy.”
Thomson has been the director of APP for almost 10 years, and during that time he has further developed the project and expanded the program’s membership capacity. The program now serves over 50 artists and houses their work at their new permanent location on West Union Street. Before he became involved with the project, Thomson only had an introspective view as a photographer and focused on objective images. Now, as a teacher in photography at APP, he focuses on the parallels between creativity and wellness.
“I look at creativity as an amazing mechanism to create meaning,” Thomson says. “Having ideas come to life and be visible creates a strong impact.”
The APP uses art-based programming to help its artists recover beyond themselves to rebuild an improved sense of self-worth. The community-based, non-profit program offers classes and training for their members. APP instructor’s guide individuals through a sequence of classes where they focus on different aspects of photography. The classes provide an environment for students to build a social network for themselves in the community. As they learn more about photography, the students start to trust people in that safe environment and build an identity of themselves as artists.
Longtime member and seven-year mentor Beth Klaus became involved with the project after a counselor recommended the APP as a way to express her thoughts and ideas. Klaus says during that time she spent 90 percent of her time in the hospital from continuously overdosing on Aspirin. The program became her support system.
Klaus says the acceptance and respect the program provides to members is one of the best aspects of the APP. The instructors and other artists worked as a “unified unit” to help her through her recovery process. Due to that support, Klaus chose to live for herself for the first time in her life.
“In the beginning, it was a question of finding something that would stimulate my curiosity and revive my imagination, then it evolved into a clear realization that what I had to expresses meant something,” Klaus says. “That what one truly wants to say visually as an artist means something.”
Josh Birnbaum is one of the instructors at APP who uses art to help the students feel like they have control over their world and enables them to share their visions and feel recognized. According to Birnbaum, in order to provide guidance for those with mental illnesses, it’s important to be a good listener. The instructor must also have patience and truly listen to what individuals are saying and what they want to hear.
“I think you have to be very patient and also understand mental health and mental disease and what that can mean,” Birnbaum says. “I think you have to understand art, but understand art on a level that makes you see that it is therapeutic.”
All of the new members start off in the introductory courses, which is where they start building that sense of community and learn the basics of photography and how to use the camera. The goal is to create dialogue about the power of photography in the artists’ lives and how it can assist them in processing the world.
As students become more comfortable with their photographic voice, the focus of the classes turn toward expanding the artist’s photographic development. That is the point when members start working with photo series; they make their own books and continue learning about more of the technical details of the manual camera. In this stage, artists begin to gain complete control over their expressive ability.
“They can become much more functional individuals because they not only learned about art and are improving their self-esteem and ideas of self-worth, but they are then creating something and sharing that,” Birnbaum says.
Those who have been involved for four years or more then move on into the advanced class. The project that students work on at this level changes annually. This year, Birnbaum is teaching his advanced students about the wheat paste and emulsion transfer process, which will help the artists put their photographs on different substrates in an easy and accessible way.
Once members become advanced artists, they study the cultural context around projects and get their work out into the community. Beginning this fall, members of the advanced class are collaborating with the city of Athens, Athens Municipal Arts Council, Ohio University, the Uptown Business Association and other local artists in a community art installation. The art installation will be displayed on the external East Washington Street wall of the Athens City Parking Garage. Thirty-five large-format photographs by APP artists will be featured as a part of this public showcase. Construction for the project is set to go underway in March 2017.
“That project is a way for our artists to share their skills, interests and perspectives through public art. They are using collaboration to reach a broader audience,” Thomson says.
To date, the APP has helped individuals in Athens county and the surrounding area by not only impacting those students involved but also the community itself. The work that the artists involved with this program have produced has generated a better understanding of mental health. With the implementation of powerful voices through the arts, the goal of APP is to continue to grow, build more awareness and integration and to break the stigma around mental illness. Their mission centers around celebrating the ability that everyone has through the arts.
“I think that art is a beautiful thing that enables individuals to express themselves, that enables them to feel like they have control over their world, when sometimes the world can be overwhelming,” Birnbaum says. “It enables them to share their vision with the world and feel recognized.”