Daniel Jackson was encountering depression everywhere he turned. There had been a spate of suicides at MIT, where he teaches in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and students told him that they were falling behind in class because of pressure induced by emotional anxiety. What could be done? he wondered.
Jackson’s answer was to start talking to the students and faculty who were suffering, and to start taking their pictures. This recording of words and images became a project called Soulstrong in 2015. From there it was transformed into our recently published book, Portraits of Resilience, a searing yet uplifting portrait of an elite university’s community struggling with depression.
Jackson answered questions for us about his book.
How did the project that led to this book begin?
We’d had a terrible spate of suicides at MIT, including a colleague of mine. I came to realize these were just the tip of an iceberg of unhappiness. Each term, more and more students in my classes were coming to talk to me about how depression was preventing them from doing their work. Depression was so widespread, but hardly talked about. And when we did talk about it, we usually talked in very medicalized terms, ignoring the major socio-cultural issues that were causing a lot of the problems.
How did you approach the students and colleagues whom you interviewed? Were they initially hesitant to make these very personal experiences public?
I teamed up with some student leaders. We sent an email to every student. Each week for a term, I published a photo and a story in the school newspaper, and put up posters about them over campus, and encouraging people to participate. Amazingly, none of the people who came to me showed any hesitation about revealing the most personal details of their lives and challenges.
As Krista Tippett of On Being has noted, young people “present themselves to the world with a fullness and a lack of inhibition that I really do think is actually new in human history.” Getting faculty to participate was, surprisingly, much harder.
Is there a particular moment in these conversations that stands out in your memory?
One person brought her partner because she felt she needed moral support to tell her story, and they held hands throughout the interview. Another told me tearfully how he’d decided not to commit suicide because it would let his friends down, and they’d given him so much. Dylan [Soukup] told me how, as he drove Sean Collier in an ambulance, police cars appeared on both sides in a motorcade to escort them to the ER. And there are so many more – every encounter was moving and revelatory.
Beyond the fact that you are an accomplished photographer, why was it important to photograph your interview subjects, in addition to getting their words down for posterity?
A photograph can give you a sense of a person’s character beyond words. The stories are sad and wise and often funny, but there’s an integrity and strength that comes across only in the photos. And the photos make it clear this isn’t fiction or some generalized experiences: these are real people with real lives. For the participants, as Sally puts it in the video on our website, it was a chance to “just get out from the darkness into the light.”
What would you say is the most important thing that you learned in undertaking this project and writing this book?
From my subjects, I learned that you can overcome even the most terrible traumas. I learned that being seen and being listened to matter a lot. And from all the “me too” reactions that the project elicited, I learned that almost everybody has some hardship in their life.
What do you think other institutions – universities, companies, etc. – can learn from the stories that you tell here?
The very desire to succeed, which most institutions foster, can be our undoing. The standard measures of success distract us from what matters most in life and gives it true meaning. Recognizing mental health challenges in a generic way isn’t enough: it’s being open and talking about our lives and our challenges with each other that will help us overcome our problems.