Maine photographer paints a more
hopeful picture of eating disorder recovery
PORTLAND, ME- Photographer, Erin Kroll, has a lot in common with the images she captures. A sense of stillness and depth lights her eyes as she speaks about her battle overcoming anorexia and how courage came unexpectedly through the lens of a camera.
Eating disorders, like anorexia, are serious illnesses with a biological basis that are often influenced by emotional and cultural factors, making recovery even more difficult. “There is so much silence and shame around eating disorders in our culture.” says Kroll. “When I was sick I just wanting to literally disappear, a wanted to be invisible.” And Kroll isn’t alone, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life-and-death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder. Without recovery, Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Kroll speaks candidly about her struggle, with the same tender grace that comes across in her work. It’s from this authentic and vulnerable place that she inspires. “I stopped shooting when I stopped eating”, says Kroll, "I didn’t touch my camera for two years. I was consumed by fear, anxiety and self-doubt…I starved myself of everything that could possibly make me happy and fulfilled. My eating disorder pulled me away from myself and all the things that gave joy and meaning to my life. Unfortunately, photography was one of them. There was no passion, no purpose, and no voice. I was totally empty. "
Kroll says that her road back to health began with wanting to be more than empty. “People always ask me how I was able to ‘let go’, I don’t really have this elaborate answer.” Kroll mentions that it is common for people with eating disorders to contemplate recovery. Tragically, the majority of those who suffer continue to be affected throughout their lives. “There’s no such thing as shotgun recovery,” says Kroll. “There is no external cure, no pill, no self-help book that can free someone from the illness that they have created. In the beginning, I put my recovery in the hands of someone else. It was exactly like riding shotgun off a cliff with no one at the wheel. I crashed horribly.”
“In the end, we are each responsible for our own wellness. Loved ones can encourage and validate, but they to have to learn to let go, they can’t save you if you don’t want it and you have to want it- you have to want to get better! You have to think about what you’ve lost and decide what you want recovery to mean for you. I was sick and tired of just existing, of being completely defined and governed by my eating disorder. I wanted the things it took from my life; I longed for fullness. Most importantly, I wanted to live! I saw a glimmer of something more in me and that was enough-I truly wanted to get better."
Kroll’s journey led her to the New England Eating Disorders Program at Mercy Hospital in Portland . “I was reluctant and terrified, but I was out of options. My life was spinning out of control. My body was shutting down. I knew I had surrender fully to recovery and I needed to be in an intensive treatment program to do it. The months I spent at Mercy were the most challenging and rewarding in my life!” Kroll explains that combined with intensive group therapy, weekly art therapy sessions helped her reclaim her voice and rekindle her creative spirit. Slowly she began to shoot again.
“I felt like I was seeing everything for the first time. I felt more connected with the world around me, more patient and open. I felt alive. Each click of the shutter was a moment to celebrate life. It was amazing.”
Celebrating life and exposing unexpected and often overlooked beauty is a common theme in Kroll’s photographs. As she works to cultivate her own inner beauty and self-worth, she strives to capture in her work, what she calls the aesthetic of imperfect, “It’s not easy” she says, “photography, by nature, can be such a superficial art. I find the more I appreciate myself, the more I am able to draw substance and soul into my images.”
Drawing inspiration from Zen Buddhism, eastern philosophy, surrealism and the graphic design, her photographs convey a subtle but important message,. “I spent years chasing the impossible dream of ‘perfect’ and it nearly killed me.”I was unable to grow as an artist. I was always trying to create the perfect piece, take the perfect shot, and wait for the perfect light, use the best equipment. It just wasn’t happening. I continued to feel like a failure. Failure doesn’t exist in an imperfect world. Until I learned to let go with grace and dignity and accept imperfection, I simply could not appreciate the authentic beauty within and around me.”
In a little less than a year, Kroll has transformed her life and the lives of those around her. Last winter, she launched Pink Dragonfly Clothing, an inspirational t-shirt company that supports eating disorder awareness and education. Seeing a tremendous need for Eating Disorder Outreach in her community, Kroll has set out to establish a non-profit that will offer free, recovery-based, support services and educational programs in Southern Maine . Kroll hopes to be able to offer the model nationally in the future.
“Anorexia starved my spirit and silenced my voice. For fifteen years I hid my illness from the world and myself. I lived in shame, secrecy and denial. Picking up my camera again, returning to my creative roots, has freed me from the silence. Now all I want to do is engage, educate and inspire.” In a media culture that is overrun with harmful images, icons, and ideals of beauty, Kroll says that as a photographer contributing to the media landscape, she has a responsibility to produce work that inspires hope and represents courage.
“Somehow, it’s become socially expectable and expected of artists, especially photographers, to document tragedy suffering and the grotesque, as a means to validate authenticity in the image and human experience. I am not discounting the value that painful imagery have in our media , and I’m not denying the existence of suffering, I just want to people to understand that there is another side to it all, another story to tell.”
Telling the ‘other side of the story’ is exactly what Kroll is doing with her latest project, Hope/Full: The Warrior Portraits. As traveling interactive photography exhibition with a companion book, Hope/Full will tell the inspirational story of people who have recovered from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, celebrating the fullness they have found in health, their passion for life and the people they have touched along the way.
While still in the early stages of production, Kroll says that she has already received requests from people across the country eager to sit for portraits or support the project, but she says that many more are needed. “There is strength in numbers. The more representation and diversity I can bring to this project the more powerful the message will be.” She encourages anyone who is interested in participating to contact her. In bringing the exhibition into communities and schools Hope/Full will engage a new dialogue about eating disorders, self-esteem, and body image, " one you won’t find in the media or popular culture" says Kroll, and inspire hope in those still suffering in silence and solitude.
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Resources & Information
For more information about Hope/Full: The Warrior Portraits Project call 207-615-2283 or email Erin Kroll at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.erinkrollphotography.com
Body Positive Outfitter, Pink Dragonfly Clothing Co supports self-esteem and eating disorder awareness, helping fund research and educational programs. Visit www.pinkdragonfly.org for more information
About the Artist:
Portland native, Erin Kroll spent the majority of her childhood scribbling crayon on her bedroom walls. Naturally, a camera seemed like a better alternative. Kroll studied photography and design at the Harrow School of Communications and Creative Industries at the University of Westminster in London . She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Goucher College in Towson , Maryland . In 2004 she returned to Maine to pursue a career in marketing and advertising. When not looking through a camera lens, Kroll enjoys traveling, exploring the Maine outdoors, and giving back to her community.