Swiss photographer Captures Manic Depression on Film

Courtesy of Matthieu Zellweger, a photograph in the “Worlds Beyond” collection

Matthieu Zellweger

Matthieu Zellweger, Ph.D., a Swiss scientist and photographer, shoots haunting, surreal and journalistic pictures of manic depression that make it seem like the subjects are experiencing unreality in real time. The pictures in “Worlds Beyond” featured in the scientific journal the Lancet are staged but give one the feeling of experiencing the states in which the subject has experienced. His journalistic work on the subject were documented in “Invisible Handicap,” which can also be viewed on his web site. The pictures have a haunting beauty of this otherwise mysterious, sometimes frightening illness. The surreal-like quality of “Worlds Beyond” helps bring one immediately into the mind of the subject. I interviewed Matthieu about “Worlds Beyond” after reading his essay in Navigating Bipolar Country by Merryl Hammond. His work has been featured around the world in many publications such as the New York Times. Here is a transcript of our chat. 

AZ: Where in Switzerland are you?

MZ: In Rolle, near Geneva, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland

AZ: What type of cameras do you use? digital, print or both? 

MZ: Both, depending on the specific project. The project “Worlds Beyond”, and the eponymous book was shot only digitally, however.

AZ: Where did you do your education for photography and health science?

MZ: I am an autodidact photographer. As an adult, I participated in a few carefully selected Masterclasses. For the health science part, I was educated and trained in Switzerland (Ph.D) and Japan (Post-doc).

AZ: What is your process for creating the dreamy effect in your work?

MZ: Slow speed, mainly, and the right amount of movement, lighting and instinct.

AZ: How do you capture people going through manic episodes? 

MZ: I met only few people during manic episodes. All people featured in the book were in a stable period of their life and/ or disease. For people during manic episodes, I asked for permission, then usually secured a second and a third level of consent by, for instance, contacting the person again at a later stage or asking the doctor looking after that person if the consent was acceptable or not. Some pictures that I have shot around people unable to give a suitable agreement were simply never published or used.

AZ: What was your interview process like? 

MZ: For the pictures in the book, I only selected people whom I had already met and interviewed for the first, journalistic part of the project. They were all in a stable period of their life and/ or disease. I recontacted them and asked if they would be willing to share with me some details of their choosing on their own manic phases. Then I reconstructed images based on these details and, with their agreement, staged them. All the pictures in the book are thus deeply personal to the subject on the pictures because they are reconstructed using elements specific to that one person and nobody else. The images are also staged, posed and later validated by the people who participated. In that sense, they are not journalistic, but artistic. The journalistic images of this project are kept separate in a project titled “Invisible Handicap”.

AZ: What is it like to play the voyeur in someone experiencing unreality?

MZ: I do not know. The role of a photographer is to uncover realities that society prefers to ignore, to show the invisible. My work ethics is such, however, that I am extremely careful to secure the agreement of all parties before I start shooting. This is even more the case for staged pictures, such as the ones in “Worlds Beyond” inasmuch as the protagonists in the pictures took an active role in giving me details about their manic phases, agreed to the project and the pre-arranged shootings, etc. This was very much a collaborative effort. 

AZ: How is photographing mental illness unlike documenting your other work?

MZ: Mental illness is, as one protagonist put it, an invisible handicap. It is more delicate to show something invisible.

AZ: What countries did “Worlds Beyond” take place in?

MZ: Switzerland, UK, USA

AZ:Was it exhibited in any place besides the Lancet? like a gallery?

MZ: It was not, but it was widely featured in newspapers, magazines, television. It still may be exhibited at a later stage. In addition, the third part of the project, “His Name Was Alban” was exhibited in Switzerland and printed as a portfolio of conceptual, fine art photographs.

AZ: What was your thinking about capturing manic depression using the blurry effect?

MZ: I did capture it in many different ways, since the entire project had three chapters: “Invisible Handicap”, “Worlds Beyond” and “His Name Was Alban”. Only the latter two use the blurry effect. Initially, I saw it as a suitable way to distinguish the journalistic images from the staged ones. Later on, it became clear that it was rather adequate to describe the inner mental space of someone who had, literally, taken me into their mind.

AZ: What is your favorite photograph in “Worlds Beyond”?

MZ: Not sure I have a favourite one. They all tell a story, perhaps several stories, to the extent that they talk about one person and about the connection that I established with that one person, the trust they placed in me and, sometimes, the friendship that resulted. 

AZ: You have a scientific background. How does it interplay with your art?

MZ: It helps me start a new project by exploring quickly the state-of-the-art knowledge on a question I might ignore all about. It also guides my choice of topics to photograph.

AZ: Have you documented other health related stories in photography?

MZ: Yes, several: stillborn children; domestic violence inflicted upon men; depression; suicide survival.

AZ: Who are your photographic inspirations?

MZ: Anyone able to tell a story, stir emotions and surprise me by taking me on a journey with a photo essay.

To view his “Worlds Beyond” series please visit To view his other work, visit Matthieu Zellweger is represented and distributed by Haytham-REA, Paris.

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