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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.’

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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.

Finally

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.

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