At the end of April this year, memobottle Co-Founder Jesse Leeworthy set off to trek over 800km across the mountains and plains of Spain on the enduring Camino De Santiago.
The first day took him over the gruelling Pyranees, from St Jean Pied de Port in France across the border into Spain. Deep within Basque country, half way to the summit, with piles of snow on ground and the morning mist surrounding the hills like a blanket (basically a majestic scene from an art house movie). Jesse bumped into a fellow pilgrim covered head to toe in photography equipment. There must have been a reason why this guy was carrying over 18kg of gear including four lenses, three SLRs and a polaroid up a mountain.
This Pilgrim was Connor McCracken.
It quickly became apparent that Connor wasn’t just walking the Camino for himself, he was on a mission. He was on a nomadic journey to start a conversation, a conversation bigger than himself, about mental health.
Introducing Project Pilgrim.
Connor what were you in your past life?
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada as a generally normal kid who played all of the popular sports and always had a love for music. Exercise has always been a great stress relief for me and that always complimented my passion for photography which pushed me to explore the British Columbian wilderness every chance I got. Ever since I was a teenager you could ﬁnd me hiking mountains or camping deep in the woods on my days or weekends off. The outdoors and exercise are something engrained in my personality and I take every chance I’m offered to put myself out there and explore.
Photo: Connor Mcracken | Founder of Project Pilgrim, photographer and lifelong Pilgrim.
What are your experiences with Mental Health and how has photography helped you?
Mental health ﬁrst became prevalent in my life when I entered university. I was in a new place in a city where I knew no one and like everyone else, I found it really difﬁcult to make new relationships. I found I would isolate myself in my single dorm room in order to prevent myself from being in situations where people meet others. This all came to a climax in my second year of school where I found I would avoid attending class or socializing because of the risk of meeting new people. This caused me to become depressed and soon my grades started to tumble and I decided it would be best to leave school in order to get help. So, I headed home and set myself on the path to getting help. I found because I was no longer in school and had more free time than ever, I chose to occupy myself with new hobbies and activities. One of those things I chose to do was photography and that is when I ﬁrst fully immersed myself in it. Everyday I would take photos and it became a sort of therapy for me to be able to escape from the thoughts inside of my head. My skill grew exponentially and soon I was able to portray a certain emotion I was feeling or mood I was in through a photo. I really like that ability to show others what I was feeling and since then that has pushed me to continue excelling in photography.
Pilgrim: Pilar from Argentina
Why did you choose the Camino de Santiago, why did you decide to walk 800km across Spain?
I chose the Camino de Santiago mostly because I had cycled it as part of a family vacation three years previous. I knew from my experience cycling that the Camino was a place people went to take a break from life and that the people you met along the way always were happy to talk about anything. This pushed me to do Project Pilgrim on the Camino because I wanted to tap into that introspection all of the pilgrims were experiencing. I believed that if I could catch people in a moment of deep reﬂection they would have something powerful to say and that excited me. Apart from the nature of introspection along the Camino, I wanted to challenge myself as well. With my depression it can be debilitating. When I’m at my worst, I can go days without getting out of bed or socializing and the Camino was my way of having a victory lap over my depression. I knew that if I could get up everyday and just keep walking, I’d be okay. This happened to be quite difﬁcult sometimes but I made it through my 800km reasonably unscathed and I’m so happy with my choice to do that pilgrimage.
Pilgrim: Pierre from Saint-Malo, France
Tell us more about Project Pilgrim?
When I ﬁrst came up with the idea behind Project Pilgrim earlier this year, I wasn’t quite sure what my overall goal of the initiative was. I knew I wanted to get people talking about mental health and I knew I had a way to do it, but what I didn’t know was the impact I would end up having on people. My project has reached over 300,000 people from across the world and dozens of those people, many who I do not know, have contacted me praising me for my efforts. They loved how I was able to get prominent public ﬁgures to speak openly about their mental health and how I humanized the topic. I was told that my project showed that even the people who don’t have diagnoses or aren’t on medication have mental health and that their voice matters in the conversation. My biggest belief is that if we want mental health to be an everyday conversation, we need to get everyone and anyone talking about it.
"It doesn’t matter what sex, race, size, culture, or country you are from. To me, your voice is essential in this conversation."
I found this especially true on the Camino where I was pushed out of my comfort zone meeting people from across the planet. I was exposed to all sorts of languages and cultures and my goal to get people talking about mental health paid off. It paid off in the sense that I would call Project Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago a success and that I am proud of the book I have made and the material I have been able to produce.
Pilgrim: Assaf from Israel
What were the best and worst experiences you had on the camino?
My best experience on the Camino by far had to do with my own mental health. In the days coming up to my ﬂight to Europe I was ﬁnishing writing my ﬁnal exams for university and was very stressed out. I ﬂew out almost immediately after ﬁnishing and found myself on the Camino just a few days later. Being on the Camino, where there is not a worry in the world either than where you will rest your head that night, was exactly what I needed. I found that even though a week earlier I may of been conﬁned to bed gripped with anxiety and depression, I was able to thrive on the Camino and complete Project Pilgrim to the best of my abilities. The Camino seemed to alleviate all of my symptoms of my mental health issues and I felt that I was happier than ever. I don’t remember the last time I felt that way and that is one of my most cherished memories of my walk across Spain.
For my worst experience, I would have to say it was somewhere around day 20 of hiking. My ﬁrst 10 days of hiking were great, but on day 11 my feet ﬁnally succumbed to blisters. As I was doing a photography project on the Camino I was carrying almost double the weight of the other pilgrims and my feet couldn’t handle that weight. After day 11, every day was ﬁlled with new blisters and pains in my feet and it begun to wear me down. I remember somewhere around day 20 being so fed up with how my body wasn’t holding up for me. It was a day I was walking alone across kilometres of farmers ﬁelds in the blistering heat and I ﬁnally lost it. I wanted so badly to be able to focus on my project and do my absolute best but my feet were slowing me down to a crawling pace and I was unable to catch up or speak to others about mental health. I was fed up, tired, in pain and had a bit of a meltdown around mid-day. After that, I came to the conclusion that I have to accept the state of my feet if I want to ever complete this hike and that allowed me to battle the Camino mentally.
"By the end, my feet were in shreds and my body was falling apart, but I was proud of myself of the ability to push my body past my limit while completing my project."
Pilgrim: Rob from Sheffield, UK
What sort of photography equipment did you take with you on the camino?
My camera gear on the Camino was fairly simple. It was much heavier than anything I would recommend, but for my style of photography I am satisﬁed with what I was carrying.
Canon EOS 6D
The only item I wish I had brought was a mini tripod. Sometimes there were fantastic photo opportunities but no one around. If I had tripod I could of been able to place a photo perfectly as well as pop into the side of it for added effect.
Pilgrim: Jinh from China.
Do you have any advice on how people can talk about metal health?
For me, mental health to this day is not an easy topic to have a conversation about. Talking about your own mental health can be very vulnerable and difﬁcult and it’s only been after a few years of doing so that I can do it comfortably. I would suggest to anyone who wants to start talking about mental health to start with a close friend and build it up from there. I found when I had to drop out of school in my second year, I hadn’t told anyone what I was actually going through. However, when I actually left school and told everyone why I had left, I heard from dozens of dozens of people that they were going through something similiar to me. Everyone can connect to mental health, regardless of if it’s from their experience, a family members, or a friend, and that can draw people towards having conversations about it. When people ask me how they can help a friend who is going through something mental health related, I tell them that the best way to be there for someone is to be able to show you can relate. It’s to not make it “their” problem, but to show that it is unfortunately an everyday thing and that because of that there is help available.
One of the most difﬁcult parts about dealing with mental health issues is accepting the fact that you need help and reaching out. I found that once I had reached out, my hardest work was done and everything begun going uphill from there. Sometimes all you need to do is call up a friend and be honest about something you may be feeling or going through. I found that being honest with yourself about the way you feel and in turn being honest with your friends, is the easiest way to get on the track to feeling better.
Pilgrims: Jade and Salome from Quebec
Pilgrims: Jesse and Diana from Australia
Pilgrims: Patrick from Italy
Book now available for order at: http://www.blurb.ca/b/7279390