A picture is worth a thousand words. At some point in our lives we’ve heard that phrase and possibly even muttered it ourselves after viewing an image that truly captivated us. Dorothea Lange’s portrait of a mother with her children during The Great Depression, the 1968 Summer Olympics photo of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlson’s black power salute on the podium that became a symbol for civil rights, and the three firefighters raising an American flag at ground zero after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York demonstrate photos that delicately and intricately capture the truth of a moment in time. The images convey raw emotions without the need for text to accompany them. The composed photographs, taken by professional photographers, reveal life, for better or worse.
Today, with over 1.44 billion monthly active Facebook users and 300 million monthly active Instagram users, the way we perceive ourselves and process images has changed, especially when we’re the ones taking the photos and working to curate our Instagram feed and develop our Facebook brand. It’s the reason we make sure our photos are ‘Instagram worthy’ and post pictures to show our Facebook friends that we’re having just as much fun on our vacation as they appeared to have on theirs. It’s our desire to make the idea of what we’re doing seem so much greater than the actuality of what’s happening. Or it’s our way of masking internal pain by appreciating and enjoying temporary beauty and then passing it onto our followers – friends, family members, and even strangers (who may have found our handle with a hashtag we used on Instagram at one point or Facebook recommended we become friends and we did). There’s this desire to exude an image of success and happiness through our social medial outlets at all times so people will believe the lie of perfection we’re trying to sell ourselves and everyone else. It doesn’t even require a lot of effort to create the illusion. All we have to do is hit a filter and our average photo can become a visual masterpiece.
ESPN Reporter Kate Fagan shines a bright light on this duality in her story, “Split Image” about a 19-year-old Ivy League student athlete named Madison Holleran who posted an image of holiday lights twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia on Instagram an hour before she killed herself by jumping off of the ninth level of a parking garage downtown.
“Instagram is passed off as real life,” Fagan writes. “Yes, people filter their photos to make them prettier. People are also often encouraged to put filters on their sadness, to brighten their reality so as not to ‘drag down’ those around them. The myth still exists that happiness is a choice, which perpetuates the notion of depression as weakness.”
Holleran did see a therapist, but the closest she came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety,” according to Fagan, even though everyone now agrees that she was depressed. The symptoms weren’t there though at the time. “Her mom remembers looking at a photo on her feed and saying, ‘Madison, you look like you’re so happy at this party,’” Fagan writes. “’Mom,’ Madison said. ‘It’s just a picture.’”
‘Smiling depression’ is a medical condition, which Rita Labeaune wrote about in Psychology Today. Its definition is “appearing happy to others, literally smiling, while internally suffering with depressive symptoms.” However, since most depressed people are depicted as being bed-ridden and incapable of functioning, the doctor of psychology stressed that this type of depression often goes undetected.
“Another way to think about smiling depression is to see it as wearing a mask,” Labeaune writes. “People suffering from smiling depression may offer no hint of their problem to the outside world. They often maintain a full-time job, run a family, household, participate in sports, and have a fairly active social life. With their mask on, everything looks great, even at times perfect. However, underneath the mask they are suffering from sadness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, insomnia, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts.”
That’s not to say everyone who smiles in an Instagram or Facebook photo is unhappy, depressed, or has a serious mental health issue. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 10% of the United States population suffers from depression. The lesson that Madison Holleran’s family wants us all to learn from their loss is that, “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to show people you’re not OK.”
It’s a reminder that a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words, especially ones that you see on Facebook or Instagram.