Depression can hardly be put into words, as Felix Nussbaumer knows from his own experience. Together with his wife, he creates images to approach the illness.
Ms. Kenneweg, Mr. Nussbaumer, what prompted you to work through the topic of depression photographically?
Felix Nussbaumer (FN): Our goal was to bring the subject closer to non-affected people through the visual language. I have made the experience that language is not very suitable for this: There remains a gap in understanding between those affected and those not affected. With the pictures we tried to bridge this gap. I work as a freelance photographer. My husband also has a photographic education. Thus, it was natural to approach the topic photographically.
Are all motifs based on personal experiences?
FN: Yes, all. You are supposed to show the inner life of a depressive, symbolically and really.
EK: It is clear that the series is not complete and depicts only partial aspects. It is a very individual perception. Thus not generally valid.
In what period of time were the images created? Did you both take pictures?
FN: The pictures were taken during the past year. Since I am mostly to be seen on the pictures, my wife took the pictures – except for the lady in black and the ashtray. We designed the process from the idea to the picture together, the prere on the trigger was always the conclusion of an intensive exchange of ideas.
EC: The most important part was developing the image ideas, which was a long process. We both contributed motif ideas, although as a non-affected person with an outside view, I always had to check with Felix to make sure these ideas were accurate and felt genuine.
The pictures of the photo project"(ICD-10 F33.2): A Depression"
Depression – when words fail
One of your pictures shows a man dressed in white, well hidden in a snowy landscape. Depression also tends to develop in secret. Mr. Nussbaumer, when did you become aware that you were suffering from depression??
That is not so easy to answer. Even before I was on sick leave, I was taking small doses of antidepressants. I knew something was wrong. However, I overestimated myself, thinking I would somehow survive the crisis. It was only when I was taken out of work by my doctor after about a year due to a breakdown that the switch to depression was definitely flipped. The image is also meant to symbolize the insidiousness of depression, its sudden appearance. Originally, my symptoms pointed to burnout – in other words, exhaustion depression. In this case, some patients can be caught by therapeutic measures and reintegrated into the working world. However, if other factors are added, such as in my case the family background in my childhood and the traumas experienced therein, this is no longer so simple. I believe that depression is often caused by several factors.
Mrs. Kenneweg, how did you perceive the change in your husband??
In the beginning it was just a permanently noticeable tension. Felix was constantly under prere, mainly because of work. He could no longer switch off even on vacation. It took an insanely long time to come down – and by the second half of the vacation at the latest, everything was already revolving around work again, combined with fears and worries. He lost his lightness. I still didn't recognize the signs, thought it was just a phase. He was also planning to make a career change. I hoped that once he had another job, everything would be better. But it did not come to that.
In your comments on the picture of the white man, you write: "Escape is no longer an option."
I am referring to the escape from depression. Just as I had done before: overestimating myself and not taking the existing symptoms seriously enough (no sense of joy, no rest, poor sleep quality, overwhelming anxiety, social isolation, . ). During the depression I thought now and then of escape, of the final exit. Fortunately, I went through the suicidal states without acting out.
The motif with the lady in black is inspired by a quote from psychiatrist C.G. Young. Have you sought professional help?
FN: Yes, of a medical as well as psychotherapeutic nature. I think the exchange with professionals enabled me to accept the depression as such and to accept the fact that it is now part of me. In addition, psychotherapy helped me get through severe crises. At best, the antidepressants have helped me to be more stable today.
EK: After some time, I also sought therapeutic help because I realized that I was running out of strength and needed someone to talk to about my situation as a family member. This was very helpful, just to relieve prere and stress. In the meantime, I also go to a self-help group for relatives.
The man in the rock face suggests the feeling of being overwhelmed and hopeless, which often drives people with depression to despair. Mr. Nussbaumer, in which situations did such feelings come over you?? Was it still possible for you to work at all??
No, working was no longer possible. Even getting my own child to daycare in the morning became an insurmountable challenge. Not to mention the demands that the world of work would continue to place on me. The resistance to everyday. Professional stress as well as self-confidence are at the bottom. The situation had worsened to such an extent that the only way out I could see was to see a doctor. If she hadn't acted, I probably wouldn't be alive today.
You compare depression with waterboarding, a "white torture method", which leaves no physical traces. Depressives often don't show their problems either. How long did you deal with your problems on your own??
Fortunately, I live in a social environment that can tolerate the acting out of feelings and can thus support me. My private environment was always up to date. Nevertheless, no one recognized the clear signs – least of all me. In external communication the matter is more complicated. I was indirectly asked to "pull myself together" and "not carrying the depression around in front of me". A depression is just not a leg break. This makes it so difficult for sufferers to convince professionals and authorities, but also their private environment. Waterboarding also symbolizes the brutal feeling of breathlessness, drowning, as well as desperate helplessness. Emotional states of powerlessness. As a depressive, I am familiar with the feeling of being at the mercy of others.
How has your social environment reacted to your condition?
Affected and at the same time supportive and positive – as a rule. Nevertheless, a "chasm of knowledge" remains also within the partnership, because it is so difficult to make outsiders understand the inner life of a person with the disease. I myself could not imagine what such an illness means and how serious the consequences can be.
With the overfilled ashtray, you address the drugs with which many sufferers try to numb themselves. What experiences have you had with it?
Addiction is already an ie for me in depression: I used to be an occasional smoker, but now I smoke regularly and often too much. Smoking can soothe my soul and relieve stress. Many sufferers reach or even cross the line into addiction due to increased alcohol consumption. Alcohol has a strong mood-lifting effect in the short term.
The crumpled family picture refers to the suffering and burden that depression also means for relatives. How has your disease affected family life??
For my family, depression means an enormous challenge. Especially in the beginning it was very difficult for Elge to separate what is "me" and what is depression. Everyday tasks became insurmountable obstacles for me; there was no question of a regular daily routine, let alone adequate childcare. Accepting this as a partner, even though you can't see the person from the outside, is difficult.
EK: I can only confirm that a chasm of understanding remains. Even after all our intensive discussions. The making of this series of pictures leaves me with a gap of understanding. One can come closer, but I think that one cannot fully understand and empathize with this illness if one has not experienced it oneself. This can have something separating, which has conflict potential in a couple relationship and in the family. And of course we are wondering what effects this illness will have on our son, on his relationship with his father.
The picture of the man in the sea evokes associations of departure and progress. Mr. Nussbaumer, what path have you taken with your illness??
Departure and progress are what the picture is actually supposed to show. But departure to where? The man moves purposefully into the sea, as if his destination were there: in the nothingness, possibly in death. It is known that about 15 percent of all severely depressed people attempt suicide at some point, which fortunately was not the case with me. The picture was also meant to show that even when symptoms are severe, you still try to function and keep going, even when you're already up to your neck in water. At the moment, I am still in the process of stabilizing myself to the point where a regular daily routine is possible.
To what extent did the photo project help you to come to terms with your depression??
The project led to the fact that I and we in the partnership had to deal intensively with the topic. This has significantly improved mutual understanding. It helped to accept the disease.
What has happened since the publication of your pictures?
The reaction of the public and in the social media has been sometimes overwhelming, rarely negative. However, the feeling remains that it is above all those affected who feel addressed and understood by the images. We do not know whether we were able to reach people who were not affected.