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Photographer Matthew Carter: Talking About Mental Health and Climbing

How would you like to be introduced? Please include a little bit about your practice, If you have a personal statement

that explains your practice or background, please feel free to include it.


I am an aspiring documentary photographer with an interest in the outdoors, both wildlife

and climbing are very much at the top of my list, for future jobs and collaborations. I have

endlessly interested in exploring and adventuring and hope to take my photography around

the world and discover all things weird and wonderful.


How would you describe this project (Title, medium, process)?


This project doesn’t really have a title, only because I couldn’t think of a funny/good

climbing pun to tie in the mental health aspect, so I just sort of went for ‘Climbing and

Mental Health’, unimaginative, I know. I initially intended to make images in a documentary

style, without a clear idea of what I was actually going to create visually, but I knew I wanted

to focus on climbing so I started looking at films and other creatives processes. Films such as

‘Free Solo’ and ‘The Dawn Wall’ have a unique perspective of how mental health has

affected these athletes. And to get some ideas about how I could produce images of

climbing I looked at Adam Ondra’s photographer, Bernardo Gimenez, as he produces

dynamic and physical images of climbers. After being injured during this project, my process

changed, and I began making more self-portraits looking at how the injury affected me

mentally and how the absence of climbing affected my brain.


With mental health becoming less of a taboo topic for people to openly discuss do you feel

that the goal of this project was to highlight how everybody struggles with mental health or

rather to give insight into an unexplored topic of some kind of correlation with climbing and

mental health, what was the main message you wanted your work to convey?


Well the idea for this project was based on my own experience with climbing. I have anxiety

and I have struggled with long depressive episodes in the past, and climbing has really

helped me to ignore and escape from my own mind however briefly. Knowing how much it

has helped me with my issues, I was curious to find out if that were the case for other

members of the community as well, so I set out to find out. I made a google form that I then

put up in the lab to collect responses from others and the reception from the community

was completely positive. The aim for my work was to almost be an advertisement of self-

expression of how climbing has positively impacted my life and my body image. I had said

early on in the project that I wanted to “pay back” climbing, as a whole, for making me so

happy and helping me through all of my problems. I was interested to see why others

climbed as well, how others used it to overcome problems in their lives.

Were there any sources of research that especially helped to inspire this project, Articles,


studies, or other projects? I know that you created your survey for people to fill out when

casting for models - did this end up going anywhere/ give you a better insight into how

mental health and climbing fit together?


I looked at Laura Hospes project UCP-UMCG in which she captured a series of images whilst

she was recovering after she attempted to commit suicide. This series helped me to

generate ideas for creating powerful images and how you can create meaning using your

body. The self-portraits I ended up making were very performative as climbing is a

performative/balletic sport, so I combined both in my visuals. The survey was eye-opening

as it gave me primary research on how people use the sport to better themselves, however,

after having conversations with my tutors, it was discussed that the photos I took of those

who responded to the form didn’t link clearly enough to my project aims so I decided to still

include them in portfolio but not pursue it further as the self-portraits had a clearer link to

mental health. It gave me ideas of how I could link them, if I used certain statements from

the responses I got and combine them with their pictures, I could link it to mental health but

that would have been tricky in terms of privacy.


I noticed the images in this project have been taken in black and white, which feels like a

step away from your previous work/style, is there any intention behind this?


The main reason for this project being dominated by black and white is because I tend to

find that colours can be a distraction or even detract from the message of images, with

black and white the message I feel is clearer and you can focus on what’s really in it instead

of drawing your eye away. With black and white images I think that there is more

opportunity as you can experiment with tonal range more freely and create more intriguing



What were your initial expectations between climbing and its effects on mental health when

you started on this project?


Initially whenever I start a project, I just know what I want to research and explore, but I

never have a specific vision in mind. After having thought about it at greater length I’d got it

into my head that I wanted to shoot outdoor climbing and see where it went, but then it got

me thinking about how much the sport has enriched my life mentally. I knew that climbing

had had a huge impact on my mental health, and I was curious about why that was, which

made me want to dig deeper. From researching I discovered that people with Anxiety and

ADHD that climbing greatly improves focus and helps to lessen overthinking as there is such

a final goal when climbing, and that is to get to the top. This made sense to me as it explains

as to why it has helped me much more than I thought it would.


Through your research what was the most surprising discovery that you made?


I was surprised to learn that in Austria and Germany are already implemented climbing into

therapy practices. I found this information from a UK Climbing article which was

encouraging to hear as it is killing two birds with one stone, it’s both helping people manage

their mental health conditions and expanding and inspiring others to join the climbing

community which is only ever a good thing in my opinion.


In Photography, especially Street Photography, there’s often a debate about how intrusive a

Photographer can be. Did you find it difficult to capture such a sensitive part of people’s

lives without overstepping?


In street photography there is definitely a line that you shouldn’t ever cross but within this

project I felt fairly comfortable capturing people in the climbing space. When I did meet up

with people to take their portraits, I didn’t immediately thrust a camera in their face and got

on with it, I felt it was important to build some kind of repour with them first, so we had a

climbing session before any photos were taken. This process I repeated for all shoots as it

helped to form a connection between me and my subject. I thought about how I’d feel if I

were in their position and felt I would be very awkward and ill-at-ease if a stranger put a

camera in my face and told me to pose. I did however struggle with giving instructions on

how they should pose as I don’t like my work to feel too constructed as I prefer to catch

people during the in-between moments to create a more natural and organic image.


Can you share a little bit about how climbing has affected your mental health? In general

and in light of your recent injury, after recently having an injury, myself I found climbing as a

hobby was both a blessing as it gave me a goal to work towards again, but also created a lot

of frustration when I wasn’t able to climb.


Climbing for me has been a real turning point, I’ve found that it is the only sport that I have

tried that I want to do every day and improve at. I have used climbing as a way of becoming

less introverted also, as the community is always so lovely and welcoming it’s very easy to

talk and socialise with people, even if I go alone. I have become far more confident than I

used to be which is a big change as it opens up more possibilities for me in the future. It has

been really difficult recently, after sustaining my second shoulder injury in November of last

year I haven’t climbed since and have been in physical therapy since December. The mental

effect of an injury felt like the end of my climbing ‘career’. I was scared that the hobby that I

had become obsessed with was something I could never go back to which made me feel

hopeless. I wanted to climb so much, regardless of injury or not but I knew that that was a

stupid idea and realised that it was better to stop while I could and get help so that I don’t

squander the opportunity to climb in the future. I have a goal in mind now which has made

me take my physical therapy seriously, I want to be stronger than I was before the injuries, I

am going to climb again and will continue until very far in the future.


What was the thinking behind capturing the life of a climber inside your own home, most of

the images mimic climbing techniques or replicate famous climbing images, what made you

want to pursue this angle?


The idea for the images of me climbing in my bedroom was because I was unable to climb at

that time, however that didn’t stop me from thinking about climbing each day and only

made my desire to get back to it even stronger. So I had the idea of highlighting how much I

was thinking about it, so I took a domestic environment and pretended to climb the wall of

my bedroom. The combination of this absurd setting of a house and incorporating

movements which highlight the performative nature of body position commonly used in the

sport and absurdity of the backdrop inspired me. This type of self-portraiture I’ve always

very much enjoyed as I get to be creative with how I use the space and actually mimics the

mental stimulation that I get from climbing itself as it’s a lot of trial and error with camera

settings and angles.


What do you think makes climbing such an effective sport for improving mental health?


I feel that climbing is such an effective way of improving your mental health as it gives you a

clear goal and aspiration, which is to get to the top. This setting of a clear goal helps to focus

the mind, allowing you to escape from the stresses of everyday life for a while. The grading

of climbs is both a positive and a negative for mental health I feel, as it can be demotivating

to plateau and get stuck in a particular grade for a long time and feel as though you aren’t

progressing, however it again gives you a goal to achieve, even if it’s not possible for you

immediately it only gets easier as you go and try different betas and techniques. The sense

of achievement that you get from completing a problem that has set you back or that you

have been projecting is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, the euphoric feeling is

addictive and so rewarding. A problem that really held me back that I completed was one

that I had fallen from and injured my shoulder for the first time. When I began climbing

again after waiting several weeks until my shoulder felt better, I always looked at it and

relived the terror I felt when it happened, and it killed my confidence to try any other hard

problems for a while after. One day I decided to just do it, I built myself up and I did it and

realised how much I had improved, because I found it so easy, a weight was lifted. Climbing

is an incredible sport with an even better community, and I would highly recommend that

everyone try it at least once, but be prepared to be hooked from day one!


Image by Matthew Carter, 2024.

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