Wednesday 3 July 2024

Six Feet Above: A Conversation With Ellis Ducharme

... at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life.

— Ellis Ducharme

Fran and I recently shared our experiences visiting the Portland Museum of Art and the Laing Art Gallery here in Newcastle upon Tyne. Continuing the Art of Friendship theme, we’re delighted to showcase photographer and videographer Ellis Ducharme, whose exhibition Six Feet Above showed through June at the Peaks Island library in Maine. The website described Six Feet Above as “a collection of thirty-six photos from a personal project to fight depression and raise awareness of mental health. Ocean themes and many cityscapes focus on finding beauty in places most deem undesirable and ugly.”

Fran lived on Peaks Island for many years. Although I’ve never visited in person, I feel a great affection for the island as Fran’s shared so much of it with me. She still visits regularly and attended several of this year’s PeaksFest events, meeting old friends and making new ones. She spoke with Ellis about his exhibition and how photography helped him climb out of depression. She shared with him her experience living with bipolar disorder, commenting that it was nice to meet “a fellow understander.”

Afterwards, I reached out to Ellis and invited him to share the story behind his work. He described how the project began seven years ago when he was going through a particularly difficult time.

The project started and pretty much concluded as a method to keep my spirits up, and was never really intended to see the light of day. I’ve suffered from severe depression from an early age, and at the time that I started this project I was at an all-time low.

I was working a one-on-one job with an employer who made me feel worthless on a daily basis. Since my wife was working three jobs and my social circles were slim at the time, my employer was the only person I was seeing regularly, and I was very susceptible to her comments about my value. I truly didn’t think I was capable of doing anything right, and I was ready to end things.

Ellis described how his wife suggested a way for him to regain a sense of agency in his life.

Thankfully, my wife could see what was happening to me, and she suggested that even though I was incredibly busy and didn’t have time for much, I had time to go out and take a single photo each day just to prove to myself that I did have the ability to be creative and make my own decisions. Additionally, this was a task where nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong. I had complete control over this one aspect of my life.

So, the next day after work, I just remember walking past my car and out into the little downtown of Biddeford, Maine where my office was. Camera in hand, I just started aimlessly walking through back alleys and parking lots, looking for something to shoot. I settled on the spire of Biddeford City Hall, owing to my love for the architectural style of the area.

At first, I wasn’t very sold on this photo, and admittedly, it is far from the best photo in the set. But I brought it home, retouched it, and posted it on my Facebook along with a brief but honest explanation of my hopeful commitment to do this each day, and why I felt it was important for my well-being. As soon as I posted it, I felt incredibly empowered and clung to that feeling.

I would continue on this schedule for about three years, taking a single photo somewhere in the natural span of my day, retouching it and posting it with a timestamp and where my mindset was that day. I still will occasionally add to this series, but at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life. I owe that to my wife, Justina.

Ellis’ account reminds me of Fran’s experience when she lived on Peaks Island. Emerging tentatively from a desperate winter-long depression, she’d leave her little house to walk on the shore. As we describe in our book, the haiku poems that came to her on those walks fed the tiny flame of hope that there could be better times ahead.

The wild, personal, and passionate poetry which flowed during Fran’s major episode of mania ceased when she fell into depression. Her creative voice was silenced for months. When it returned it was completely transformed. The haiku forms that emerged as she began to climb out from depression were more than descriptions of the island scenery around her. They were Fran’s attempt to find a reason to go on living.

These poems were written on Centennial Beach, a short walk from where Fran lived at the time. She would return home, show me her latest poems, and then share them on her social media page. It was her way of reaching outward again. As she said later, “I was trying to save my life, to get out of the house onto Centennial and wait for the haikus to come. That was all I had.”

High Tide, Low Tide

Fran used her fingers to remember the lines until she returned home and could write them down, a memory technique she uses to this day. Despite differences in their situations, Fran and Ellis are describing very similar experiences, each grounded in their creative response to the world around them. It’s clear that Ellis’ project has had a long-term positive impact on his life and wellbeing.

As of today, there are almost 900 photographs, most of which I can still remember what was going on in my life on that day, how I was feeling, and what I was going through. When I started this, I was in a place where I was questioning my own validity and how real of a person I even was. Having this concrete evidence of my mental journey documented in a way that only I can decipher has been very grounding.

Ellis selected five photographs from the collection.

1-4-17 — Biddeford City Hall, the first photo
1-8-17 — Bailey in the bath
2-24-17 — One of my favorite photos in the set, visually
9-20-17 — Photo taken the day I left the job that made me start this series
4-8-17 — Photo taken on an especially low day

Fran and I are immensely grateful to Ellis for sharing his story and work so openly. If you’re interested to learn more, check out his website, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Flikr.

Over to You

Does Ellis’ story resonate for you? What activities have helped you with your sense of self-worth when you’ve been going through a difficult time? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo of Ellis Ducharme at the Peaks Island library by Fran Houston. Other photography by Ellis Ducharme.


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