The therapeutic power of photography has helped me to identify and process feelings and emotions I was unaware I had. For example, during the pandemic and the lockdowns, I noticed the calming effect of therapeutic photography. I experienced photography as a mindful activity -photography as a self-help therapy. Therapeutic photos helped to experience healing photography.
I believe there is a link between photography and mental health. I will give a brief history of phototherapy and the mental health benefits of therapeutic photography.
In 1977 Psychology Today published a short article on photographs being used to aid others. However, mental health photography dates back to 1865 and the work of Hugh Welch Diamond. Since then, consumer cameras have become easier to use. Psychologists and other professionals have also begun to study the possibilities of shooting images as a therapeutic aid for improving the lives of individuals of all ages and backgrounds.
As a teacher, Nancy Starrels worked with a group of problematic students under his supervision, he says.
As a result of learning impairments, many of her kids had dropped out of traditional schools. Instead, they were encouraged to take cameras into their surroundings and return with images they would work with therapeutically.
They needed to gain confidence and conquer hurdles by capturing their reality and sharing it with others. Some of them are still really interested in taking pictures.
Psychotherapist Judy Weiser published the first article with “PhotoTherapy” in its title back in 1975. At the first International Photo Therapy Conference in 1979, several early pioneers realised they were not alone in integrating their therapy expertise with their interest in photography. Her view is that these tactics were inevitable, and the 1970s were fertile ground for new ideas.
In the mid to late 1970s, cameras became more readily available to the consumer market. As a result, there was a boom in the use of cameras in everyday settings. In addition, photography in the digital age has meant that most people carry a camera around in a smartphone.
Mental health workers have been using photo-based treatments for years, according to specialists. As a result of COVID, Dr Robert Irwin Wolf has asked some of his private practice patients to send him images they’ve taken before a session. ‘In their online sessions, we investigate the unconscious content of these photographs.’ At The Expressive Therapies Summit New York, he will conduct a one-hour session on remote therapeutic photography.
As part of our efforts to better understand the therapeutic value of photographic images, we spoke with art therapists, therapists, and even a photographer who has been coping with the COVID pandemic by using her camera.
What is therapeutic photography and phototherapy?
Judy Weiser, Founder and Director of the PhotoTherapy Centre in Vancouver, Canada, has taught therapeutic photography courses and methods internationally for decades. Judy clarifies a few frequent misconceptions about PhotoTherapy and therapeutic photography before we begin.
In instances where the abilities of a skilled therapist are not necessary, people may use therapeutic photography to benefit themselves. Secondly, in PhotoTherapy, any therapist or mental health practitioner can employ PhotoTherapy techniques.
PhotoTherapy uses techniques and personal pictures, family albums, self-portraits and pictures taken by other people. In addition, the feelings, thoughts, memories, and beliefs these photos bring to mind can deepen insight during sessions.
Phototherapy pictures can help people express feelings, emotions and thoughts that may be difficult to explain in words. But, of course, since you don’t know where to begin, you don’t. However, talking about a photo is often a good place to start.
Consequently, communication is enhanced during sessions. What was previously difficult or impossible to talk about can be given a voice.
For example, I use photography as therapy for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem in addition to other mental health issues.
Therapeutic Photography is photography by the individual. Furthermore, the use of photographs can help individuals to communicate feelings and emotions. For these reasons, these techniques are more for self-help and awareness. Therefore, input from a therapist is not needed, but the dialogue is helpful. As a result, I offer organised group sessions.
Creating photos has been shown to benefit peoples mental health, likewise, with other art forms.
People can use photography for self-therapy with or without the help of a photo therapist. For additional information on any of these strategies, check out Weiser’s website and request to join her Facebook group. In addition to her book PhotoTherapy Techniques, she plans to offer a package of online courses.
“This stuff isn’t about the art component of the photo,” says Weiser. Instead, there is a heart component to it. For a photography-focused website, this is where it may get delicate since it’s predicated on whether something is considered “excellent art.” In my world, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” picture in my reality. As you examine or remember a photo, its emotional content is evoked, not just what you see on the image’s surface”.
For this reason, she asks individuals why they took a particular photo instead of another, what they might want to call it if it could speak and so on. Creating a photograph isn’t the end objective; it’s just the beginning. Art is not the focus of the intervention. The delivery and analysis are therapeutic. However, they are photography augmented- the self through photos.
To make use of these approaches, you do not have to be an expert in photography; you can utilise personal pictures or any other medium of your choice. In the beginning, you may not even be aware of why you are taking a particular photo.
New York-based therapist Melissa Kay Cohen explains it this way: “In art therapy, nothing is forced. Art therapy is a process, not a result, because it focuses on the creative process. It’s not uncommon for me to have my clients set up all their shots before editing them. But we don’t focus on technical words and don’t talk about them in technical terms. Instead, imagery is associated with personal experiences, including problems and delight. Through photography and visuals, we investigate the self.”
Is therapeutic photography good for mental health?
Firstly, photography is an activity that provides you with some needed space. As a result, you can take time out from your day and address feelings of depression, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.
Secondly, photography can improve well-being—particularly confidence and self-esteem. We need time for ourselves. More ‘us’ time helps us be more connected to our true selves rather than chasing someone else’s ideas.
Moreover, most people have a camera they carry with them all the time. A smartphone is all that’s needed to tell your story. Phototherapy and therapeutic photography give you a space to do it.
In conclusion, making a photograph helps us to focus on the now. Looking at our pictures can help give a ‘voice’ to things we cannot talk about and give us insights into our attitudes and feelings.
How does photography help relieve stress?
In February 2010, Heather L. Stuckey, DEd, and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, published a study that looked at the effects of art on physical and psychological health (February 2010, Vol 100, No. 2 | American Journal of Public Health).
The study concluded that ‘Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.’
Most of us have or will face mental or emotional challenges. Stress can come from many areas of our lives. It may be from our work, family or social lives. Photography as therapy enables us to refocus and changes our perspective. Photography is therapeutic.
How is photography therapeutic?
After being accepted into many graduate schools, Kristen Shortell, an art therapist at Paint the Stars Art Therapy LLC, was encouraged to switch from photography to more traditional mediums. She stuck to her guns.
Shortell cites the medium’s accessibility as a contributing factor, “photography may be the most far-reaching art form in our time.” Anyone with an iPhone or Android can take a photo.” “I’m seeing more and more children as young as two years old using cellphones and iPads,” she says. In addition, an individual, a group or a clinician can utilise a camera to create a product to share and reflect on.
Shortell worked with some of these children who could ‘scarcely move or speak, but we had a modified camera that allowed them to hit a large button after pointing the camera at them. So, in a way that hadn’t been possible previously, they could share their perspective and experience’.
In a senior population, ‘I’ve seen it used to help with memory care. When working with adolescents with behavioural challenges and trauma histories, I’ve found it a valuable tool. Using it in a group can develop empathy, allowing others to perceive from another person’s point of view, for instance. Infinite possibilities are available. The therapeutic experience can be inclusive.
How to use photography therapeutically.
Therapists we spoke to shared their first-hand experiences with us. Here are some of their tips. While most of these experts allude to their professional experiences with clients, we hope that individuals can adopt many of these activities using therapeutic photography approaches to improve their well-being. Consequently, therapeutic pictures could be termed health photography. So feel free to investigate those that resonate with you.
Using photography in a therapeutic way can stir up emotions and feelings. ‘There is a potential that if you use these strategies to study your own life, you’ll uncover a startling memory or experience,’ Weiser says. ‘This is something you might want to discuss with a professional therapist if it happens to you.’
Therapeutic Photography - 9 Beginner Tips.
1. Investigate the concept of self-portraiture. Selfie!
As Dr Brandoff tells us, “I am often inspired by the way clients turn their cameras on themselves”. ‘Selfies’ may be a part of everyday life for some individuals, but many still find it challenging to photograph themselves.
A few times a year, I invite clients to take a self-portrait that tells something about them but isn’t their faces. Every time I see how this directive is understood, I’m amazed.
In what ways might a portrait inform us about ourselves? Portraiture can tell us a lot about how we view individuals. We can learn a lot from it. We know how a person looks, but portraits can give us a sense of who they are or what they stand for. Furthermore, images can reveal how the subject wants to be perceived and convey the sitter’s mood’.
Have a look at the video below. It’s from one of my favourite photographers, Sean Tucker – along with John Free and Chris Orange (see above). It is ok to be vulnerable. I like what he says about mirrors and ‘high-angle duck-face selfies’.
2. Therapeutic photography – visualise your feelings.
In addition to having clients write down their emotions, Dr Brandoff has also had them explore them symbolically. As she tells us, “I had a client who utilised photography as a tool to capture her feelings and emotional process.”
‘She would break dishes in her kitchen and then take pictures of the broken pieces – sometimes wherever they fell, and other times in a more composed fashion. In this way, the photograph took on a great deal of significance, as it contained the emotions that she had trouble accepting. A means for the client to transform negative impulses into something productive and even beautiful
3. Respond to a question.
There is a wealth of inspiration and ideas on Weiser’s website. For example, hers’s one of the strategies she uses: “Go photograph pictures you’d want to leave as a visual legacy to your grandchildren” is one example. Another is “Take or find photos that reveal things you can’t convey in words.”
Note this crucial statement from Weiser: “These questions are presented to illustrate the types of questions that professional therapists might ask their clients when employing this technique during their treatment session.” Please do not try to use them on others unless you are professionally educated in conducting therapy.”
4. Calm your mind with mindfulness techniques.
Davenport Creative Arts Therapy’s Founder and Director, Emily Davenport, suggests a mindful approach.
It’s often better to undertake these exercises with a professional, but you can also try them independently, including this exercise in mindfulness. Asking clients to snap photos of objects or subjects evoking various emotions has been helpful to her, she says.
As part of this process, clients purposefully and mindfully connect inward while gazing at everyday objects. We can’t change what we’re unaware of, so it’s crucial to be mindful of our emotional reactions. Slowing down and focusing on our inner world is also part of the process.
Some people find it helpful to write a diary entry after snapping a few images of what the images brought up. For example, ‘I’m noticing these colours are bringing up a feeling of joy and relaxation for me right now.’ In addition, they can describe the process of capturing the shot.”
Go gently, whether you’re working with a professional or on your own. “Follow your gut instinct and pay attention to what feels good for you,” Davenport recommends. “Having a time constraint might also be beneficial at times. What makes photography therapeutic is the ability to connect with your art and yourself on a deeper level. As a result, developing little practises or rituals. For example, meditation, writing (or other forms of deliberately connecting) may be beneficial before or after you begin photographing.”
Try not to pressurise yourself by consciously taking mental health photos or thinking these will be my therapy session pictures. Be in the moment.
5. It’s therapeutic to get out of the house!
As Weiser points out, “photo walks in nature can be a form of therapeutic photography.” This means that when you decide to go for a stroll (e.g. you’re too depressed to move or too anxious to go out), your behaviour has already altered. When you’re doing something positive, you feel good because you’re in nature. When you’re actively involved, your mind is no longer on the problem,” she says.
6. A day in your life.
Dr Rachel Brandoff, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Art Therapy Specialty in the Community & Trauma Counseling Program at Thomas Jefferson University, suggests encouraging clients to recount the storey of a day in their lives. A set of images can tell the tale of a specific event or period in your life. However, there are many images needed to tell the storey of what happened to you.”
To be clear, you can try this exercise or any of the others listed here on your own, but they would not be phototherapy unless you were working with a therapist. When a client works with an art therapist, a certified mental health practitioner, she says, “art therapy occurs.”
She explains that photograph-making and introspective practice on ones own can still be therapeutic and bring more profound understanding and heightened awareness. However, non-therapists should apply a therapeutic technique exclusively to themselves and not to another person.
7. Photo a day.
Photo a day tasks have helped Karin van Mierlo, a photographer and photo coach, cope with stress during COVID-19 and other difficult times in her life.
Two and a half years ago, her brother-in-law called to tell her that her sister was in the hospital. As she had been diagnosed with many deadly brain tumours seven months earlier, ‘we knew this was going to happen. To be with her and her loved ones, I rushed to the airport to meet her. In a line to board the plane, I took my first snapshot at the airport.
I then pledged, knowing that I would spend the rest of my life caring for my sister and others: To take at least one photo a day for at least one year. Unfortunately, I was in such a haste to leave that I forgot to take my camera with me. It was the only device I had. However, I didn’t let anything stop me.
One photo a day on some days, and many more on others. Photographs might be intriguing, captivating, or excellent or bad. But, no, the goal wasn’t to take excellent shots with an expensive digital camera. Instead, a terrible time in my life was the focus of the storey.
So, I planned, knowing that I would need those brief moments of focus on something distinctively me to cope with the situation: To make something. It doesn’t matter what the tools are or what the outcome will be. This pledge helped me keep connected to an essential part of myself, I’m sure. Then, I was able to care for others because of my experience. One of my most valuable possessions is this collection of images. Apart from a handful, they’re not something I’m comfortable sharing with anyone. I did it for me,’ she said.
8. Experiment with therapeutic photography for mental health.
If you’re an experienced photographer, letting go of expectations can be a problem while using therapeutic photography approaches.
Experimenting and trying new things is one approach to accomplish this. However, Dr Erin Partridge of Wings To Fly Art Therapy Studio in California cautions artists not to get caught up in mastering a skill or doing it correctly. Instead, think about the things that arouse your curiosity.
“A young client of mine who was suffering from significant anxiety and despair utilised a smartphone with macro and fisheye lenses to explore digital photographs. She learned to see her surroundings in a new light to slow down and pay attention to minute details.”
If you don’t have access to a top-of-the-line DSLR, you can use a smartphone or even a toy camera. Photograph a brand-new topic or switch out your usual gear. In addition, Dr Partridge enjoys tinkering with various cameras, including polaroids, digital cameras, instant picture printers, and strange lenses, among others.
There’s a saying in photography that gear doesn’t matter, that content is king. A smartphone is all that’s needed. The images are therapeutic to you and your feelings.
9. Make a therapeutic therapy book!
As Dr Erin Partridge explains, “one of my customers, an older adult, brought in photos of her trips to put into a book.” “It was a way for her to establish her worldliness, to remind us that she hadn’t always lived in assisted living, that her world was quite wide and expansive. There was much to be learnt and experienced from her trips, which led to a thoughtful moment of reminiscing.”
You can also use boxes or other sorts of photo displays to display your photos. Davenport adds that as a tool to process sorrow, “photographs can be a way to memorialise certain individuals, locations, or animals that someone has lost”. So if you choose, you can make a ‘grief box’ out of images.
It can also be used as a tool to memorialise and process feelings surrounding sadness and loss. This is especially true when a client can show me how they are feeling rather than tell me about it.”
Photographs and displays can be a significant component of the creative process for many people. Unfortunately, many in-patient and group therapy settings don’t allow cameras due to privacy restrictions. However, Shortell says, when she has been able to use cameras, she’s seen patients create photo albums to take home as a memento of their treatment.
“I’ve seen individuals decorate their walls with images that reflect happiness, love, and freedom. It gives them a sense of having a voice and being heard, even when there are no words.’
Bonus Tip: A photoshoot with friends.
Art Therapist Deborah Adler in New York adds portraiture into her treatment. As part of her work, she has arranged mini-photo shoots with clients and combined the images into collages representing their personalities.
Children that struggle with self-esteem, confidence, and emotional regulation issues often benefit from this strategy. Furthermore, young people enjoy the ‘fun’ of a photoshoot. Photoshoots enable people to use smartphones for something other than texting and games.
There are a variety of props that can be worn or used creatively. It’s up to them to decide where in the room to pose, either seated or standing. The client is allowed to let go and become whoever they wish to be in this creative experience. What they are going through at that moment is expressed in a safe environment.
The service users are in charge of how they want to move and what facial expressions they want to portray, and a therapist is present to observe them as they do it. Photographs and metaphors can trigger a wide range of emotions, whether conveying wishes or worries or sadness or rage.
“I make prints of the customers for the next session to construct a collage of their own. In addition to collage, they can use other media, such as drawing materials and words, to express themselves further. A self-reflection and an honest discourse about feelings and emotions are possible in this process”.
Adler’s idea may be turned into a mini-self-portrait shoot (using a remote shutter release, for example), with props and poses of your choosing.
However, keep in mind that people should never do these exercises with anybody other than licenced therapists. Integrating client photographs and self-images might bring up feelings of insecurity and even trauma, says Dr Adler. For work on such sensitive imagery and raw emotion in therapy sessions, it is vital to have the appropriate training.
Finding a professional (Phototherapy).
‘The best training comes from self-experience, so I would recommend finding someone trained to work therapeutically with photography to work with for your personal growth,” Dr Wolf suggests. Again and again, this tip was mentioned by a few of the experts we interviewed; depending on your needs, you might find a therapist (e.g. British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) or a therapist who has therapeutic experience in photography techniques to guide you through the process.
“Working with a therapist can help people reflect in different ways than they might on their own,” Shortell explains. “Anyone who tries these exercises on their own and maybe doesn’t find much, as a result, shouldn’t discard the idea altogether. I would hate for someone to think, ‘I did this on my own, and it didn’t help, so I’m not going to try it again with someone.’ Doing anything on our own isn’t the same as doing something with a professional.”
While people can and do use therapeutic photography techniques by themselves or in groups, a qualified therapist can create a safe environment for exploring these techniques more fully while also avoiding potential triggers. Of course, if at any point you find that mental health issues are disrupting or affecting your life, the first step should be to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
‘The use of photography as a therapeutic tool (as with any art material or therapeutic tool) can be delicate, and sometimes, what is revealed is unsettling,’ Dr Brandoff explains. ‘This is a good reason why it can benefit people to engage in therapeutic work in the context of therapy with a trained professional.’
A therapist can help hold the space, create a safe container, guide the process, and help a client to close a session of inquiry in a way that will not leave a person emotionally open and raw as they resume typical life activities. Sometimes, when we start working on things, processing life events, and even trauma, it can feel great considering our own personal growth. But it can also feel challenging, and it is not a linear process. Going down this road with a guide help a person stay the course when the journey becomes challenging.’
Photographic therapeutic communities for your health.
Many people participate in therapeutic activities separately and without a group, and for some, that’s great. However, when exploring these activities, even if you decide not to engage with a mental health professional, you can still seek out the support and encouragement of a community or self-help group for support and encouragement to fully utilize your therapy photos.
As part of a weekly “photo activity” day, some groups organise photoshoots, explains Weiser. Like group therapy, but without a therapist. Walking with friends and chatting about their feelings is a surefire way to improve mental health.
A local group can be joined or created. Each time they meet, they go exploring together, taking pictures of anything that strikes their eye. As they take pictures, they also converse with each other. This social interaction can be helpful if they’re feeling particularly isolated, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Find a group in your area. Ruth Davey’s Mindful Photography Club in England is a great place to start. In addition, Photowalk Meetups, guides, tools, and more are available on The One Project, a platform founded by Bryce Evans after he employed therapeutic photography activities to cope with his depression, anxiety, and other issues.
Melissa Kay Cohen says, ‘this [COVID-19] is a really stressful and trying period. So we need to be reminded from time to time that it’s good to take a few minutes for ourselves and pay attention to what comes our way without any preconceived ideas.
When you tap into your inner wisdom, you may always discover inspiration and purpose. First, look at what doesn’t work for you and why when creating photos.
Exploring the place, subject, and relationship is a great way to start. We all have an inside dialogue about what is correct or good, who will enjoy this, etc. Try not to listen to your inner critic and focus on your feelings and the process instead. ‘I see, I hear’ is a vital inner critic to acknowledge and honour. Remind yourself that it’s all about the process. Art and photography are for one’s own enjoyment. Observe, accept, and practise self-love as a result of the process.’
Photography can help people express feelings, emotions and thoughts that may be difficult to explain in words. But, of course, since you don’t know where to begin, you don’t. However, talking about a photo is often a good, therapeutic place to start.
Call today for more information on photography for therapy 033 3303 4805 or book photography for therapy courses at my Shop.
One of my favourite genres of photography is Street Photography. No need for lights or a studio. Just you and your smartphone on the street.
Don’t worry if you don’t live in a big city. If you look, there’s stuff going on.
Brian Lloyd Duckett made a video entitled: ‘Street Photography as Therapy?’
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