The artist Jennifer Thoreson has “wrestled” with anxiety since she was a child, when she went to sleep with the fear that something bad might befall her parents overnight. As an adult and artist, she dreamt up ways to picture anxiety. Facing the challenge of illustrating a visceral experience through photographs, she knew she had to go beyond the literal.
Thoreson created the photograph above with her pastor and his young daughter. She built the sculpture on his back using silk, wool, and wax; since it was extremely heavy, she applied it piece by piece. “It was a physical illustration of what it is to take on weight little by little, not realizing how heavy a burden has actually become,” she wrote. “When that weight was lifted all at once, the sense of immediate relief was astonishing.”
Psychological pain, fear, grief, and anxiety often carry physical symptoms, such as headaches, tightness of the chest, fatigue, and dizziness. For some artists who’ve chosen to picture anxiety, traditional photographic approaches are insufficient. Instead, they opt for a more radical route. In this collection, we look back on some of their stories.
“I think making the work did help,” Thoreson told me in an interview about her photographs. “It was an act of catharsis to fabricate the sculptures and installation pieces, using my hands to produce tangible representations of the burden of anxiety.”
John William Keedy describes some of the photographs in his series It’s Hardly Noticeable as “metaphorical still lifes.” The project tells the story of a character navigating “an unspecified anxiety-based mental illness,” with the images illustrating repetitive and compulsive behaviors such as flossing, cleaning, and note-taking. By not showing the character himself within some of these still lifes, he invites us to step into his shoes.
Another still life series, this time from the photographer Aaron Tilley and the set designer Kyle Bean, uses objects to create feelings of discomfort by illustrating the moment just before something bad happens: a match is ignited, a balloon pops, or ink spills.
David Delruelle’s collages, made in collaboration with VSCO, illustrate rare phobias—including the fear of technology, the fear of clocks, and the fear of buttons—but they’ll feel familiar to those of us who’ve navigated any kind of anxiety disorder. For the project, he used old archival photographs 1950s and 1960s, the era of Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone, heightening the sense of paranoia and dread running throughout the images.
The surrealist photographer Aaron Ricketts created this image using a plexiglass box, which he filled with water. At the time, he was about to leave university, and his enlistment in the military was coming to an end. The idea of being submerged underwater mirrored how he felt about entering the next chapter of his life. It was a time marked by uncertainty but also hope—a leap of faith into an unknown void. For that reason, it speaks not only to the experience of anxiety but also to the potential of coming out of it on the other side, reborn.