Looking Back/Looking Forward (Part I)

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

There’s something about the written word. Prose or poetry, there is something mystical about conveying thoughts, ideas, emotions, or experiences in a medium as simple as words on a page (or screen). No music behind the poem, no visuals to guide the viewer, just simple words. Somehow, these words can have a monumental impact on someone the author will never meet, due to time or distance or both.

I had a reminder today of how much power the written word can have. Even now I’m still having a bit of difficulty wrapping my head around it – yet at the same time, there’s something deep inside me that feels like it’s finally waking up, like I’m finally realizing what I can really do. Let me explain…

For quite some time I’ve gotten involved with an online community that’s combining photography with mental illness & recovery. Think of it as a form of therapy – learning how to tell your story, learning about why you tend to gravitate toward certain images, or why you prefer to shoot a certain style or subject. I’ve learned a lot, and connected with some awesome people because of this group.

The founder of this community partnered with Sunway University in Malaysia this year as part of their “Return to Light” exhibit that focused on mental health, and invited the community to submit their own writing and photography to be included in this exhibit. After some thought I decided to submit a condensed version of a post I had written on this blog quite some time ago, which I titled The Mask (read the full post here: https://riseabovetheashes.blog/2018/04/01/the-mask/). The exhibition was in September – but I’ve had a LOT of stuff going on in my day-to-day life that I’d kinda forgotten to look into how the exhibit went to look at other community member’s submissions. Heck, I STILL haven’t checked their submissions yet. Oooops!!

Well, today I received an email from the wonderful lady who takes care of communications and social media for this community. I tell you, this couldn’t have been better timed. Today was tough. Mentally it was just HARD on many levels, and it’s been a busy week so physical tiredness is another layer. The email simply thanked me for submitting my story, and noted that the exhibition even made the local news!! That’s pretty cool – but the best part? The attendees were given the opportunity to share personal messages for the photo stories that were submitted. Here are some of the responses to my story:

“This was an eye-opener for me. Thank you for sharing”

“Life sometimes may be harsh on you, but sometimes it gives u good things too. Fight for it, u’re not alone, ya”

“Dear Andrew, I have the same feeling as you. Like sometimes I am drowned into darkness. I want to talk to someone but I don’t know if they are ready to listen. Cheers! I believe there’s a light in the world!”

“There must be darkness for the light to shine bright!”

“Dear Andrew, ‘You’re stronger than you know’ Thank you for sharing

“Thank you for sharing. You are not alone! Stay strong!”

Return to Light attendees

I never dreamed I would have such an incredible opportunity. I never thought my work would make it that far across the globe. How far? Well – a quick Google search shows it’s a mere 27 hour flight (including 2 stops). 13,000 kilometres. 8,600 miles. Yeah, that’s pretty crazy – but more so the fact that somehow I can make a difference in someone’s life, simply by turning my thoughts into words in a blog. It’s definitely surreal.

I’m going to start rambling soon, so I’m going to show some restraint and save some of those thoughts for another post. Below you’ll find the condensed version I submitted. The feature photo of this post is the self portrait I submitted as part of the story

A self-portrait seemed fitting, No colour, no flattering outfit or posed “to show my good side”. Just me. A little nervous about eye contact, a little uncomfortable in front of the camera, but hoping my story will give others a bit of courage to share their story too.

If it seems I’m distant, maybe I am. It might not be intentional, although at times it is. Sometimes I need to get out and talk, to give voice to the darkness swirling around me… but I’m too afraid to ask for your time. I understand all too well that you have a life, a job, a family, commitments. And those are important, no question. But I believe that I’m a burden to you. So I isolate. I act. I hide behind a carefully crafted persona. I wear a mask. You see, you have to understand that I’m not like you. I’m broken. Fractured in a way that may never be fully healed. The pieces that make me who I am don’t fit together anymore. In some ways every day it’s like waking up to a stranger in the mirror. But using the mask and hiding behind it also feeds it, it fuels the darkness, it makes it stronger, hungrier, more unpredictable. So I fight back the only way I know has helped and runs counter to anything and everything the illness is screaming at me: By living. By reaching out. By fighting the urge to keep everyone at arm’s length and instead pulling people in close. By candidly showing them the cracks and broken parts, pointing out the flaws and touching the scars. So here’s to the broken ones. The fractured ones. The ones who are barely holding things together: Sometimes the only way to get to the light is to wade into the darkness. Not as a prisoner, not passively submitting and complying to its gravitational pull, but with grim, stark focus. Like a gladiator. Like a warrior. You’re stronger than you know. And I’m pulling for you!

Andrew “Phoenix” Penner

P.S. If you’re interested in checking out this photography community I’ve talked about, it’s called The One Project. If you know the battle of mental illness, and you like to take pictures, I’d like to invite you to join us.


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