After the deinstitutionalization of the Athens asylum, all patients were sent back to their homes. Promises were made for patients to still have some sort of program or activities to help them cope with the change. However, these promises were not kept, and patients found themselves back in isolation, facing the same mental health challenges.
Elisa Sanford founded the Athens Photo Project, or APP, after her son, who lives with long-term mental health challenges, was sent home after the deinstitutionalization. Sanford ended up obtaining a degree in fine art photography. She wanted to teach others how to work and express themselves through photography.
Through forming the Athens Photo Project, Sanford found photography could help others express themselves individually, communicate with their peers and be physically active within their society. These were all positive, healthy habits.
Last year, the Athens Photo Project celebrated 20 years of serving people with long-term mental health challenges by showing them the beauty and benefits of photography.
When the artists first join the APP, they are in the classroom the first two years and focus on expressive photography, specifically self-expression. The third year, artists are taking photos of places, people or things in Athens.
“We did a long project on the farmers’ market, and we recently finished a project on nonprofit storytelling,” Erin LaBelle, photo co-op photography coordinator, said. “It was celebrating nonprofits of this region during the pandemic by going out and photographing their work. We're working on food photography with Live Healthy Appalachia right now, with the possibility of doing an e-cookbook collaboration. We help them with entering contests and applying for grants, and so we help them with their bio in their resume. We all work as a team on AAP exhibitions.”
LaBelle said how important it was for the artists to experience Athens through the lens of a camera and be able to socialize with the people encompassing them.
“That's what we're doing in a social enterprise,” LaBelle said. “The two parts of APP, to me, make a whole because they're both therapeutic in different ways, but one is very much exploring your interior and your inner landscape. And then the social enterprise takes them out into the community more, and you are exploring the community with our cameras.”
Although challenges have been faced with COVID, APP made sure its artists were healthy and encouraged them to continue their passions individually.
“Our common core member at the time was going to people's houses and picking up SD cards,” Chris Michael, photo co-op training and workforce development coordinator, said. “It was sort of like continuing to encourage people to keep making photographs while they're at home and stay connected to the rest of the group.”
Working in an online platform has been difficult, especially since APP is working on developing internal decision making systems that allow for different committees to make their own decisions on specific subject areas.
“There's a much slower process, especially for us. We're trying to build a cooperative, and, already, that's pretty hard,” Michael said. ”Now we have these additional sort of communication challenges where nobody's really seeing the whole group at the same time — trying to keep everybody kind of connected in the lines of communication. That was a real challenge, but we were able to do it. It was really good to get people together again.”
Nate Thomson, executive director, made sure to make it known this project isn’t just about one thing — not about mental illness — but it’s the process of each artist exploring their life, their imagination and enjoying what the art of photography has to offer.
“We're really practicing art,” Thomson said. “Then, as we extend that out in the community and create opportunities for artists to share an artist in our program to hear their work, we're really creating a structure for this group that was really once quite marginalized to have a voice in the community and to share their expressions and share their individual lives and really go through a process of letting go of them so that they, themselves, let go of a lot of the shame and stigma that they may be holding or they may have experienced. So, our exhibitions, the artwork that goes into the exhibitions, is very complex and very diverse.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article contained the incorrect spelling of Nate Thomson’s name. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.