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Learning from depression

A professor’s photographs and his subjects’ candid stories.

Depression no longer carries the stigma it once did; frank depictions in popular culture and the media have led to greater understanding. A new book focusing on the emotional struggles of people in the MIT community, however, goes beyond seeking compassion for those with depression; it suggests that we have something to learn from them.

Portraits of Resilience, by Daniel Jackson, a professor of computer science at MIT, features 22 MIT students, alumni, faculty, and staffers in a collection of photographs and first-person narratives. The book emerged from a particularly heart-rending period in 2014 and 2015 when the MIT community lost several members to suicide, including a faculty colleague of Jackson’s.

Jackson, who is also a photographer, originally conceived of a series of gallery portraits and quotes from people at MIT who had struggled with depression. He was inspired by the personal story of Karen Hao ’15, who had written about her experiences in the Tech. He wanted to make emotional challenges visible and personal, a counter to MIT’s culture of anonymity.

This story is part of the May/June 2018 Issue of the MIT News magazine
See the rest of the issue

After photographing and interviewing Hao, he realized that a few words of wisdom weren’t as valuable as a detailed personal story. The project grew into a series of photo essays in the Tech, and then a book. Volunteers responded to campus fliers and e-mails; Jackson was impressed by their willingness to share intimate details that were often painful.

Jackson’s simple, black-and-white studio portraits capture both vulnerability and strength—as well as ordinariness. Interspersed throughout are images of the campus, often with a solitary figure against bare architecture. It’s a reminder of how a campus buzzing with activity can be painfully isolating for some.

In depicting depression, Jackson says, the tendency is “to say these are normal people, and this is just an illness like any other.” But his goal was “to recognize that these are people who, even if they are ordinary and like the rest of us, have had extraordinary experiences,” he says. “We should recognize that, and we should learn from the insights they’ve developed.”

The essays—Jackson’s lightly edited interview transcripts—tell of high achievers struggling with feelings of inadequacy. Many describe negative interactions with family members, faculty, and medical staff, shedding light on how others’ reactions to people with depression can cause further anguish. They also tell of friends who provided crucial support. Several subjects found help in spirituality or religion; some found it in antidepressant medication. Most had climbed out of their darkest times. But these aren’t simple success stories; the subjects are candid about setbacks and ongoing challenges.

A common theme is acceptance and letting go of perfection. “At MIT, you get used to an engineering mind-set, that any problem can be solved if you put your mind to it,” Jackson says. He was struck by how many of his subjects had to accept that their depression might not be completely fixable before they could find a greater happiness. 


Recent Books
From the MIT Community

Balancing Green: When to Embrace Sustainability in a Business (and When Not To)
By Yossi Sheffi, professor of engineering systems and director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, with Edgar Blanco
MIT Press, 2018, $29.95

Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age
By William Deringer, assistant professor, Program in Science, Technology, and Society
Harvard University Press, 2018, $45

Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy
By Graham M. Jones, associate professor of anthropology
University of Chicago Press, 2017, $75

Intuitive Design: Eight Steps to an Intuitive UI
By Everett McKay ’83, SM ’85
Black Watch Publishing, 2018, $42.95

The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development
Edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, PhD ’01
Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, $45

Optimal Spacecraft Trajectories
By John E. Prussing ’62, SM ’63, ScD ’67
Oxford University Press, 2018, $80

New Solutions for Cybersecurity
Edited by Howard Shrobe, principal research scientist at CSAIL; David L. Shrier, lecturer in Media Arts and Sciences; and Alex Pentland, professor of Media Arts and Sciences
MIT Press, 2018, $25


Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2017 and 2018 to be considered for this column.

Contact MIT News
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Write MIT News, One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142

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