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From Pathology to Integration: Photographer Twyla Sampaco Transforms Her Bipolar Diagnosis Into A Powerful Artistic Exploration

From Pathology to Integration: Photographer Twyla Sampaco Transforms Her Bipolar Diagnosis Into A Powerful Artistic Exploration

When a bipolar diagnosis threatened to define Filipina-American photographer Twyla Sampaco by her mental health struggles, she found the courage to redefine herself.
Twyla Sampaco, self-portrait.

You can read the Spanish, French, Swahili, Arabic, and Chinese translations of this article at These translations were created using AI so they are not perfect.

“The more time I have spent sleeping or chasing sleep, or trying to wake up, and wondering if I am already awake, the more I realize that it is very hard to trust your own senses and trust that anything is true.” — Twyla Sampaco, Technicolor Nightmare

When I first met Twyla Sampaco (aka @heartlesstwyla) in 2019, we were both attending a tea event at Blue Cone Studios in Capitol Hill. I was sitting at the far end of a long table, drawing quick and dirty pencil portraits of the various Seattle-area artists in attendance, and Sampaco was seated in the center, a pastel-colored polaroid camera hung from a slender strap around her neck as she studiously flipped through a stack of photos. I was intrigued. In a world where digital dominates, anyone willing to embrace the messiness and unpredictability of film has my instant respect. I craned my neck to take a closer look. The images had a hazy dream-like quality to them, each still double exposed — one image obscuring and blending with another. A first-generation immigrant, Twyla Sampaco was born in the Philippines, immigrated to Thailand as a baby, and then to the U.S. when she was 4 years old. Like many young immigrants growing up between the culture of their parents and the culture of their new home, Sampaco felt a heavy pressure to pursue the “American Dream” and would, for some time, study material science and engineering at UW.

“Being an Asian immigrant in America, I didn't think that being an artist was an option for me,” Sampaco said during our interview. “Like we didn't come to this country so that I could draw pictures. I definitely felt this burden of like, ‘I have to go into a reliable profession. I need to study engineering.’ And so in that sense, being an immigrant kind of impeded my ability to open up to the idea of being an artist. But at the same time, the Philippines is this incredibly creative, incredibly inspiring place to come from. There's like, amazing fashion. There are all these influences, all of these cultural influences. We just kept getting colonized but like ingesting different parts of the colonizers culture, as well as keeping our indigenous culture.”

Excerpt from Technicolor Nightmare by Twyla Sampaco

An assortment of point-and-click disposable cameras were a consistent presence in Sampaco’s childhood home so she had many opportunities to explore the photographic image.  But it wasn’t until her mother got a Canon Rebel 2000 while Sampaco was in high school that she began to fully realize just how passionate she was about film.

“Being around other people is terrifying,” Sampaco said. “There's so many factors, there's so many things to think about. There's how I impact them; there's how they could impact me. I have serious trust issues. I just struggle with relying on people and being vulnerable around people. I have very much a people pleasing face. And I want people to be comfortable and be happy, have a good time, and not feel hurt. And a lot of that is at the expense of my own comfort.”

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