Editorial: Fight or flight - a psychological journey through photography

by Nienke Botha


On two different occasions in 2019, I came face to face with a home intruder. In the first incident, I was alone, and for a reason I couldn’t understand, I confronted him. He ran, I chased, I grabbed him, and I got punched in the face. He got away. He never managed to steal anything, but in my mind that was because I had confronted him.

Shortly afterwards, I moved into a new house. The second incident occurred just a few months later. I was awoken by the sound of burglar bars being bashed in, only I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. That morning I didn’t fight back, I just stood and shouted at him to not hurt us. He attacked my boyfriend, stabbing him three times before we managed to hide behind a door. We heard as he made his way through the house before there was silence.

I felt guilty. Why didn’t I fight back this time? If I too, fought back, maybe then nobody would have gotten hurt. If I could fight back last time, why couldn’t I fight back now, even when I had help? A part of me felt that if I hadn’t just stood there screaming, we could have stopped him. I later discovered that he had stolen my entire camera bag while we were hdiing, which just reiterated my thoughts.

It was the same morning that my application to specialise in photography was due, but on that same day, all the equipment that I had collected over the years had been taken, and with it, a lot of my excitement, and motivation. It made me question what I wanted to do with my future, I had a lot of self-doubt. All the signs and thoughts in my mind were pointing to “just give up, flight not fight.”

There are many students who have experienced break-ins, and more than once. You lose a sense of trust and security, especially in instances where you get hurt. Cases where laptops and bags get stolen, valuable work gets taken, students tend to feel defeated, unmotivated and often, this can cause a snowball of negative experiences and second guessing.

I always knew that whichever career I choose to follow, I want it to allow me to help others struggling through difficult times, in a way that encourages creativity and empathy. It felt like I didn’t have those options anymore. How was I going to become a psychologist if I struggled to cope with my own experiences? How was I going to stay creative with my photography, if I had lost my motivation?

It wasn’t until I realised that I was in a mental state of fight or flight. Like my reactions to the two break-ins, I couldn’t decide whether to fight these feelings or let them take over, but in the end, I fought. I am now majoring in psychology and photography, and so grateful that I pushed through my self-doubt. Something that really helped me through my hard experiences was animal-assisted therapy, which I now hope to do someday through my psychology degree.

Being a photography student, with access to a range of equipment and a studio, as well as different photographic assignments, I recognised that my creative adventures were far from over. Before the current lockdown, I was asked if I could take photos that will be used as a sneak peak into a film titled, “Relapse, Recover” being made by Nontokozo Mchunu, a master’s student studying documentary film. While she explained that the project was not for her Masters, she wanted to create a film that represented times of depression and overcoming them, and this theme needed to be clear in the photographs.

[ABOVE: When you find yourself relapsing back into dark days, remember there is always a way to recover. If you survived once, your even stronger to survive again. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana)]

[ABOVE: Going through a really difficult time in your life, such as experiencing depression, it can sometimes feel like there is no way out. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana, Honours Drama student at Rhodes)]

[ABOVE: Even in the darkest of times, people have the strength to find peace. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana)]

[ABOVE: Some try to reach out of the darkness, seeking for some light. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana)]

[ABOVE: Feelings of hope and motivation become masked by a cocoon of self-doubt and mental anguish. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana)]

[ABOVE: Dark days will eventually give way to more colorful ones. (Model: Nokulunga Ngcongwana)]


While photography is not just a great creative outlet, I have learnt that it is also a great platform to help others, whether through representation or creating awareness. I have come to realise that negative experiences shouldn’t hinder your dreams or motivation, but encourage you to be even stronger in your pursuit.

Activate Online | Student Media

Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

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