Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health
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Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

The extremely gifted Marcus Paladino was successful on nearly all fronts when it came to his career. But he was falling apart. Photo: MP


The Inertia

I wake up before sunrise and am sitting with my coffee staring at the glow of my laptop playing Dark Side of The Lens. This is probably the three-hundredth time I’ve watched it. This motivational film for my line of work has become a staple in my morning ritual. Hearing Mickey Smith’s narration repeating in my head throughout the day, “If I only scrape a living, at least it’s a living worth scraping. If there’s no future in it, at least it’s a present worth remembering.” A mantra for what I do and why I do it. 

I drag my oversized, and overpacked, dry bag to the end of the driveway. Canadian surf legend Pete Devries is waiting there to pick me up, early as usual, and we discuss the day ahead. We go over the ever-changing forecast, wind, and tides of the Pacific Northwest. What we might see, what we hope to see, potential angles to shoot, beating the crowd – and then score one of the few fickle slabs just outside of town.

Although Pete and I have slowly grown from neighbors to colleagues to friends over the years, when we’re documenting surf, it’s all business. On the way home, we discuss the state of the industry, future opportunities, upcoming swells, sponsor budgets, video projects and creative ideas. His work ethic as a professional surfer has greatly impacted me. He’s a constant professional when he’s at the office but will easily slip back into his family oriented lifestyle once home. I, however, seem unable to turn it off. It’s all I think about, the reason I get out of bed in the morning. I had finally made it as a full-time surf photographer. This is all I’ve ever wanted. A literal blessing and a curse.

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP

I’ll never forget my first anxiety attack. 

I was driving along the Pacific Rim Highway in Tofino, white-knuckling the steering wheel, heart pounding out of my chest, and gasping for air as if I had just come up after a rogue set wave had landed on my head. I had no idea what was going on and didn’t know what to do. The local radio station was playing punk-rock music in the background, so I turned it up, way up. It couldn’t go any louder and I thought my eardrums were going to explode along with the speakers in my car. Suddenly, in a white-hot rage, I bellowed out a painful roar, screaming every curse word in existence at the top of my lungs, smashing my palm on the steering wheel and punching my fist toward the roof over and over again. I have no idea how long that went on until I made an abrupt U-turn and went home. 

Once in the confines of my bedroom, I locked myself in and cried as hard as I’d ever cried in my adult life. There was no way to explain it, no specific incident to cause such a dramatic effect. I was drowning in my own fear and panic. It was as if this feeling had been boiling up inside for who knows how long and it needed to be released, whether or not I was ready for it. When my body began to regulate and I was no longer disassociated with my sense of self, I got out of bed and grabbed my wetsuit and surfboard. I surfed for five hours and watched the sun go down until I was the only person left in the water and my extremities had gone completely numb. When I returned home, I pretended nothing had happened.

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP

As it turns out, throughout my 20s, I’d slowly developed (and later was diagnosed with) Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This became more clear as I continued to push my body and mind in an attempt to survive and thrive as a freelance photographer, specifically focusing on cold water surfing – in Canada of all places. Turns out there are a lot of similarities between pursuing photography and surfing, as far as making a living off them. Both incomes are dictated by the budgets of brands, which can run dry at a moment’s notice. We’re dictated by the choices we make; where we surf and shoot, what to post on social media, which trips to go on, and how much money to invest in ourselves.

I was considered a “workaholic” but I thought of it more like a burning passion and dedication to my craft, just as with the art of riding waves. Every check I cashed or invoice I wrote felt like it could be the last. I was in a perpetual state of paranoia, constantly waiting for someone to pull the rug from beneath the dream I was living. Realistically, the odds were against me. This small window of opportunity was cracked open during the right time of my life, and I was going to maximize it and not have any regrets if (or when) it didn’t work out. 

All in the pursuit of happiness, ironically. 

In social situations, I was keeping it together. I continued to be outgoing and enthusiastic among my peers with a consistent positivity about the world around me that would keep anyone naïve to my mental health status. My anxiety is different than most, external factors outside of my control don’t have much of an effect, while my inner demons beg for attention. Calm on the outside, screaming on the inside.

I’ve been renowned for working extremely hard in my field, although it didn’t feel like I had a choice at the time. If I wasn’t working as hard as possible at any given moment, if I ever turned down a shoot or made any alternate plans outside of the surf, then another lensman would be waiting in the wings to outdo me and flourish in my place. I would swim with my camera for hours on end, uncontrollably shivering and bleeding at times from the chaffing of my wetsuit. My internal dialogue would shout, “I don’t matter,” repetitively and I convinced myself that I’d miss the wave of the day if I stopped, or the surfers would be upset if I went in, and the entire career I’d created for myself would be in jeopardy. 

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP

The self-judgment, shame, and guilt that came with that was extremely overwhelming. Imposter syndrome was prevalent, as if it was a just matter of time before I was exposed as a fraud. For years, I was walked around in fight-or-flight mode. Every second of every day, I’d find myself trying to outrun my own anxiety. I was my own worst critic and self-conscious, not only about my work as a photographer, but myself as a person. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. When I finally sought help, I remember almost biting through my tongue trying not to show any reaction or emotion when a therapist unexpectedly asked me, “How’s your relationship with yourself?”

What most people who don’t suffer from anxiety won’t understand is that while I was successful in all aspects of my career, I still had this perception of myself as inadequate. I had unintentionally created a brand for myself and had Canada’s best surfers willing to work with me at a moment’s notice. My photos were published on magazine covers and in international publications, and I had a solid client list of respected brands. I was financially stable for the first time in my life, and I was traveling the world with my camera doing what I love. I was even invited to compete in the Pro Photo Showdown, a world-renowned action sports photography competition that had inspired me to start shooting surf. I accomplished a lifelong goal and released my first photo book during the pandemic: Cold Comfort. I was so obsessed with my goals, always focusing on what was next and not actually living in the moment. Photography and my goals in surfing had always occupied my life. But I wasn’t entirely sure there was anything else.

My fiancé and I were on a spontaneous road trip in Northern British Columbia toward the Yukon Territory. “Isn’t this the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen in your life?” she asked while smiling at me, as the morning alpine glow of Kluane National Park pierced through the windshield. She loves mountains. Almost as much, if not more, than I love waves. I smiled back in agreement and continued my all-too-common state of deep thinking. Quietly losing myself in my thoughts, even with others I cared about around. After a moment of silence, her smile disappeared and she asked me if I was capable of enjoying anything besides surfing. 

Her question was valid. I eventually concluded, and expressed, that before I moved to the coast and started surfing, I never truly felt loved or accepted for who I was as a person. I always felt an urge and need to have something I knew wouldn’t hurt me and would always be there for me. It wasn’t until I finally found surfing at the ripe age of 20 that I knew I was finally home. The community of people who I surrounded myself with were so loving, supportive, and like-minded. I’ve never felt such a genuine bond in my life than with people I spent a single summer surfing with, even over a decade later. It’s my main form of exercise and adrenaline. It’s how I socialize and spend time with friends. Surfing has become much more than just a sport I take photos of, and take part in. It’s my lifestyle and my livelihood. An absolute obsession and healthy addiction. Good or bad, surfing will always be there for me, whether I need it or not.

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP

I was having an identity crisis driving through those mountains in the Yukon and didn’t know where Marcus the human started and Marcus the surf photographer ended. I slipped into a deep depression; one that lasted weeks. This was the turning point and as I continued the long drive back to Tofino alone, I didn’t know this episode would later result in the end of our engagement. 

Through this painful process, I realized I needed to change my relationship with myself if I was going to have healthier relationships with those around me, too. 

I wasn’t going to be afraid anymore and I wanted to dedicate more of my time to learning about my mental health and loving myself the best I could. I studied proper diet and alternative forms of exercise outside of surfing to create healthy habits; like a morning routine of journaling, meditation, and gratitude practice. Despite my hesitation, I was brave enough to speak with a doctor and finally was prescribed the right medication, after much trial and error. I joined a local men’s support group, found a therapist I felt comfortable with, and started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I read books, listened to podcasts, and talked openly with others about my struggles with anxiety – something I’d felt so ashamed to even admit I was suffering from before. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I practiced nourishing the healthy relationships in my life and put up personal boundaries for the unhealthy ones. Before, I always thought I could just “get rid” of my anxiety, but I now have the knowledge and understanding to live with it rather than wishing it away. 

The work never ends, and simply knowing that feels safer and more accepting. My surfing and photography have become less all-consuming and more enjoyable than ever. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I know it’s in the right direction because there’s no end to a mental health journey. Just like there’s no end to photography. While anxiety may never fully go away, we can find calm in the chaos. Whether you’re behind the lens or in front of the wave, in the end, it’s not about being the best or the bravest of those around you. It’s about being true to yourself, expressing your emotions, and asking for help when you need it.

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP

As someone who has lost a loved one in the process of finding myself again, I know how important it is to prioritize your well-being and seek support when you’re struggling. As I share my story, I realize how essential it is to acknowledge and honor our struggles and to find healthy ways to cope with life’s challenges. But I also know that there’s beauty and joy to be found in the pursuit of your passions, whether it’s surfing, photography, or anything that makes you feel alive. For me, it’s the combination of the two that has given me a sense of purpose and a way to connect with a community that I love. Through all the ups and downs, I’ve learned to love myself more deeply and fiercely than ever before.

To anyone who’s struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, or even just the societal pressure to hustle and perform, remember that you’re not alone and the strongest thing you can do is take care of yourself and find balance in your life. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. And you might discover a whole new world of possibilities when you start to love yourself as much as you love your passions.

Dark Side of the Lens: A Surf Photographer Confronts His Mental Health

Photo: MP