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 ho