What it’s Like to Photograph with ADHD
Talking about his father’s influence on him, Robert Adams said, “One of the first lessons I had was if you sit still long enough, you will begin to see remarkable things”—advice that would dictate his expansive and contemplative photographs of the American West. His words are true for all practitioners of art. We see, listen, observe, reflect, ponder over and introspect to find what it is we want to convey through words, music, drawings and photographs. It requires a great deal of patience, discipline and restraint— qualities that are dispensed to us over time—to sit still and observe the remarkableness of the world around us. But for some of us, these qualities are learned with painstaking effort. It’s not because we don’t possess the capacity to be patient and disciplined, but because we are too consumed by the same thoughts that are responsible in the creation of art.
I’ve always told friends, “When you talk to me, I’m actually playing a game of Tetris in my head.” There’s no better way to sum up my state of mind. At any given point, even now, as I type these words, the incessant flow of thoughts in my head keep me from completing the task at hand. These thoughts deter me from keeping still, from remembering things, and more importantly, from living in the present. It also doesn’t help that I am inherently shy, timid and anxious. All my life I have lived in this cesspool.
Many, many years were spent punishing myself for not being adequate, and for not living up to a certain standard that I had envisioned for myself. I always knew that something was not right about my situation because how could someone who has always excelled academically, who is a voracious reader, and who writes for a living (pursuits that require a great deal of patience and thought) be this scatterbrained? The year 2020 brought clarity to these doubts. At the age of 29, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The diagnosis brought with it overwhelming relief because it explained so much about why I was the way I was. I wasn’t inadequate or stupid, I was simply wired differently.
Living with ADHD means that you exist in a perpetually chaotic state (at least in my experience). It doesn’t necessarily always have to translate into tangible indicators, but has more to do with the chaos that resides in your mind. The constant bombardment of thoughts renders you incapable of any kind of streamlining, and leads you to be inconsistent and impulsive. You may be wondering what this has got to do with photography? There is a connection, I promise.
Despite the instantness of photography, the medium still requires that you slow down to recalibrate and ruminate over what it that you want to convey in your pictures. To do that, you have to be focused and present in the environment you are in. This is hard for people with ADHD because they not only have to deal with the chaos in their mind, but also the chaos in their
surroundings. Having to constantly shift your attention can be exhausting, especially if you don’t have the mechanisms to cope with it. Allow me to explain. The kind of photography that I engage with the most is street photography and self-portraiture. Whenever I’m out shooting in the streets by myself, I am constantly overwhelmed by my thoughts that almost always manifest into anxiety. And in a city like Bombay, that is known for its chaotic temperament, this feeling is exacerbated. It incapacitates me to a point where the patience and stillness that is warranted in the practice of the art, is lost. What I have discovered though is that if I am in the company of a friend who is also photographing, the whole exercise becomes less debilitating. Just having a known presence around me soothes my anxiety, temporarily quietens the blaring thoughts, and helps me focus on my surroundings.
When I am photographing self-portraits at home, the problem isn’t as profound because of the familiarity in space. However, if the space is too quiet, my thoughts come screaming at me. So I play music while I set up the camera and photograph.
Perhaps the only redeeming factor of living with ADHD is the impulsivity that it brings with it. Because your mind is already so riddled with conflicting thoughts, you are sometimes forced to be uninhibited and photograph with abandon. Street photography reverberates with this quality, and it helps, in certain cases, to follow your gut without any forethought.
Although I have experienced the therapeutic qualities of photography, I also understand that there is so much more to the process that has been hidden because of the disorder I inhabit. But I hope that through my experiences, you (if you have ADHD or notice a pattern) recognise that there is always a way around to such problems, and that it is possible to be creative and thoughtful and enjoy every bit of the process.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Better Photography.Tags: