In 1977, Psychology Today published a short news article about a new technique in psychotherapy: specialists began to use photographs to help patients solve their problems.
In the 70s, cameras became widely available and easy to use. At the same time, psychologists and other mental health professionals began to explore the potential of photography as a therapeutic tool. One of them was a psychoanalyst, Dr. Robert Irwin Wolf, director of a special education school for juniors and seniors.
“We had a wonderful photography teacher, Nancy Starrels,” he recalls. She inspired her students, who dropped out of mainstream schools due to learning disabilities, to take photographs. They readily took cameras and created images that we then studied from the point of view of therapy.
Students held exhibitions — a picture of one of the students even made it into the annual Time-Life Photography book. But most importantly, by capturing the world as they see it and then sharing their impressions with others, children were able to build self-confidence and overcome life’s difficulties.
The main essence of the use of photographs in psychotherapy is to explore their unconscious content and apply the information received to solve problems.
In this article, we will learn how therapists use photography in their practice today, as well as how to overcome difficulties and draw inspiration from the camera.
This article does not contain medical advice and is for informational purposes only.
It’s not about the art
What matters is not what you photograph, but why you photograph it. A photograph in phototherapy is not something that appears visually on the surface of the image — it is its meaning, feelings and memories.
For this reason, psychotherapists often ask people why they took a photograph this way and not another; what they would like to call her, what she could say if she could speak, etc.
Creating a photograph is not the end goal, but, on the contrary, the starting point for further research. You don’t need to have any photography experience to try phototherapy. You may not even know why you are photographing what you are photographing — understanding may come later after reflection.
Sometimes in a session with a therapist, such components of photography as light, form, contrast, composition, subject and exposure are discussed. But you do not focus on terms, but rather reason why it was done this way and not otherwise.
The unique potential of photography
Photography is arguably the most far-reaching art form in the world today. You may not have knowledge of art history, an understanding of the basics of aperture and shutter speed, or even technical skills. But, if you have a phone, you can already become involved in the world of photography.
When you are in a difficult emotional state, and even more so in a state of deep depression, it can be very difficult to do something, so other practices that offer you something to draw, craft or build may not be suitable. Using the camera requires very little energy: you get the result instantly — it can be shared, conceptualized and explored.
“I have worked with children with severe medical problems – some of them could barely move or speak,” says art therapist Kristen Shortell, “but we had a special camera tailored to their needs that allowed them to press a large button attached to their wheelchairs. They were able to share their vision, which was not possible before.”
How to do phototherapy on your own?
Here are some exercises that art therapists use in their practice to uncover the essence of photographs taken by a client and understand their deep feelings.
You can complete each task yourself and then reflect on the result. However, psychologist Judy Weiser notes that if you don’t do the exercises with an art therapist, it won’t count as art therapy.
“Art therapy happens when a client works with an art therapist who is a trained mental health professional,” she emphasizes. “But that doesn’t mean that self-study art and reflective practice can’t be helpful and provide a deeper understanding of one’s feelings.”
Therefore, if you have the opportunity, find a specialist in the field of art therapy and work with him. If not, do the exercises yourself, it will give an effect anyway.
Exercise 1. Mindfulness test
Take pictures of objects, objects that make you feel something. In this way, you will practice intentionally and consciously observing your own emotional reactions that appear when you look at everyday things.
We cannot change a situation about which we know nothing. Therefore, this exercise of slowing down, looking closely, and connecting with our inner world will help you understand yourself better.
Try keeping a diary in which you note how you felt. It might look like this: “I noticed that these colors right now make me feel happy and relaxed.”
Whether you’re working with a professional or on your own, work thoughtfully and slowly. Follow your intuition and listen to what you like. However, sometimes doing an exercise with a time limit can also be beneficial — in this case, you think less and follow your primary impulses more.
Therapy is about using creativity to connect with yourself on a deeper level. So small practices or rituals—such as meditation, journaling, or other forms of mindful self-observation—can be a useful tool.
Exercise 2. Document a day in your life
Tell the story of an event or episode in your life through a series of photographs. Consider how many photographs you need to tell the story of what you have experienced or witnessed.
This exercise also consists of reflection. This is an opportunity for you to see this or that situation from the outside, which often helps to come up with new thoughts and draw the necessary conclusions.
Exercise 3: Challenge yourself to take one photo a day
Sometimes it seems that some older people look happier than younger people, which may seem strange — after all, as they say, the latter still have their whole life ahead of them.
Have you met such pensioners who have every day scheduled by the hour? In the morning, exercises in the park, then have a bite to eat with friends, then pick up the grandson from training, bring home and feed, and there you already look at the evening and it’s time to dance. Such pleasant things fill life and make us happier, even if they do not lead to the conquest of peaks.
If in a long period of your life you can find a business that will fill your days, then this will brighten up the expectation. It is often said that sometimes all we have to do is wait. And if at the same time you find something to your liking? Perhaps you will open new horizons for yourself.
Try to make a photo your “one thing a day” — when, after completing this task, it will already be possible to consider that the day was not in vain. Some days it may be just one photo, and other days it may be several. Some photographs may be interesting, compelling, or “good” while others may not.
It’s not about taking “good” photos with a professional camera. It’s about coping with difficult times in your life. This requires small moments of concentration on something. Easy to do, regardless of the tools and the result. A case that would help you stay in touch with a vital part of you — the part that makes you special and different from the rest.
You can only take photos for yourself, you don’t have to show them to others.
Exercise 4. Experiment
If you are a professional photographer, the most difficult part of phototherapy can be to get rid of expectations and stop focusing on the result. One way to do this is to experiment and try new things. Don’t get hung up on learning skills, instead focus on what you’re interested in researching.
“When I was working with a teenage client who was experiencing severe anxiety and depression, we used macro lenses and a smartphone fisheye lens to take experimental images,” says Dr. Erin Partage of California. “This process encouraged her to slow down, look at small details and look at the world around her in a different way.”
You don’t need a top-notch DSLR, your phone will do. But you can also change your usual equipment to something else. Experiment with all kinds of cameras: old Polaroids, digital cameras, photo printers, unusual lenses, etc.
Exercise 5. Go outside
Nature walks can be a form of therapy photography.
When you leave the house, you already change your usual behavior (for example, you are too depressed to move, or too worried about something to go outside) and therefore feel better.
Then you focus on taking the picture — you have a goal. At such moments, you are actively involved in the process, and your head is not busy thinking about problems.
Exercise 6. Abstract
“Yes” to intuition and openness, “no” to specific intentions.
“I work in a day hospital with people with mental health issues, developmental delays, trauma, and behavioral problems,” says Michelle Belanger, an art therapist in Brooklyn. “Due to some problems in receiving and processing information and other physical or emotional limitations, I advise them to think more abstractly, and not according to a given directive.”
“For example, I asked students to look around our school yard and take pictures of a certain color, shape. It was nice to get together and not compare, but pay attention to their choices and understand why they did it this way and not otherwise.”
Many people find it helpful to set goals and focus on a problem when taking photographs, but Michel Boulanger takes a different approach:
“I am a big fan of intuitive art, photography, abstract work and lack of clear intention. I like to be more organic and work in my inner world.”
Exercise 7. Visualize your emotions
Document your emotions and explore them. For example, Dr. Rachel Brandoff recounts a situation about her client: “She broke dishes in her kitchen and then photographed the broken pieces. Thus, photography became important to her, because it helped her to experience emotions that she could hardly bear. It was also a way for her to turn destructive impulses into something constructive and even beautiful.”
Of course, it is not necessary to beat the dishes. Crumpled or torn pieces of paper, scattered candy wrappers and crumbs in the bed — our emotions manifest themselves in different ways. And for this you don’t need to make a mess — take a picture of your tear-stained face or, conversely, a smile in the mirror. Turn feelings into art and then explore them.
Exercise 8. Self-portrait
For some people, “selfies” are a normal part of their self-expression, but many still have great difficulty photographing themselves.
Take a self-portrait that says something about you, but don’t let the face in the frame show. How you do this will say a lot about your condition.
Exercise 9. Organize a mini photoshoot
Deborah Adler, an art therapist from New York, actively uses the format of mini-photo sessions as part of her sessions. “I have often used this technique with children who were struggling with self-esteem, confidence, and emotional regulation issues. I provided them with a wide range of props: hats, glasses, microphones, necklaces, dolls, etc. to wear or use creatively.
“You can pose freely, sitting or standing, anywhere in the room. This creative experience gives clients the opportunity to let go of the situation and become who they want to be. This gives them a safe space to express whatever they are going through at the moment.
After the “photo shoot” Adler asks clients to make a collage of the resulting photos. This process provides an opportunity to reflect on yourself and have an honest dialogue about your feelings and emotions.
Doing these kinds of activities with a mental health professional can deepen the experience and help you get feedback. But you can also do this exercise on your own, especially if you are more comfortable doing a photo session without strangers.
Deborah Adler also notes that you should not involve third parties in the interpretation of the resulting photos, unless they are licensed therapists or art therapists. It is important that the person is properly trained to deal with the subtle imagery and raw emotions that come up during a therapy session. Otherwise, a person through his vision can shift his personal negative experience onto you.
Exercise 10. Play with the collage
Collage is a fairly popular technique. “Cutting shapes out of photographs and placing them in a new context demonstrates how we can do this in real life,” says Dr. Partridge.
Dr. Adler also uses collage in his work. “One of my first experiences with photography was with an elderly woman who had a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair,” she recalls. This woman was once a successful artist, mobile, energetic and very attached to her family. But after the death of her husband, who suffered a stroke and rheumatoid, she became a physically limited, sad and needy woman in her family.
“The first project we worked on was creating a series of photo collages that depicted all of her loved ones. Words describing each family member were written on each page of the collage, other pictures and colorful paper were also used.
“Each page was wrapped in a protective film and placed in a photo album. The client was extremely motivated and full of energy as she worked on each of the pages dedicated to those she loved. It gave her a sense of purpose and control and a reflection of her life and all the positive memories she had.”
Search for a professional
Working with a therapist can help you think differently than if you were doing the exercises alone.
“Anyone who tries to work on their own and may not find anything as a result should not completely abandon this idea,” says Dr. Kristen Shortel. “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘I did this on my own, it didn’t work for me, so I’m not going to try again, even with a specialist.’
A skilled therapist can create a safe environment to explore techniques more fully while avoiding potential triggers.
“Using photography as a therapeutic tool (as with any art medium or therapeutic tool) is a very delicate matter, and sometimes what is revealed is unsettling,” explains Dr. Rachel Brandoff. “Therefore, it may be beneficial for people to engage in therapeutic work with a qualified professional.”
Phototherapy may seem complicated and difficult, it is a non-linear process. The therapist guides the process and helps the client complete the session in a way that does not leave the person emotionally open and raw as they exit the therapist’s office into daily life.
Therapeutic photography communities
If you don’t want to work with a specialist, you can find a community or support group.
“There are groups that have photoactive days once a week,” says Judy Weiser. “It’s a shared experience—like group therapy, but without the therapist. If five people go for a walk, they talk and share their thoughts and feelings, thereby improving their mental health.”
You can also create your own local group of friends, colleagues, or social media followers.
In difficult and stressful times, it is important to take a few minutes for yourself.
When creating images, try not to listen to the inner critic — that dialogue that we all have with ourselves from time to time about what is right or good, who will like it and why it is necessary. Focus on your feelings and the process itself.
It is important to respect and acknowledge this inner critic: “Yes, I see, I hear.” But remember that this is a process. Create and shoot for yourself. Accept the processes and feelings that arise by practicing self-care.