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Photographs have power. Creative photography allows us to see the world in new ways, to drop preconceptions, and to find focus in a busy, chaotic world. For some, photography is an art; for others, a job or a hobby. But there’s another, rapidly expanding avenue for camera work – photography as therapy.
Creative work as therapy is not new. Art therapy – using painting, drawing and other kinds of art-making – has been around for decades, with rigorous training programs and applications in many different settings. More recently, poetry therapy has entered the scene, using poems and other written works to facilitate self-discovery and healing. Now, photography too has been embraced as more than a tool for mindfulness, meditation and creative satisfaction: “therapeutic photography” is a recognized application both of photographic work and work with photographs.
Numerous counselors, psychologists and other healing professions, some photographers in their own right, have explored the healing aspects of photography. Canadian psychologist and photographer Judy Weiser offers training in therapeutic photography, and, in her book Phototherapy Techniques—Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums, discusses the many ways in which photography can be used for healing. Her work is aimed primarily at professionals, with the usual caveat that photography work should be done under the supervision of such trained experts. Taking a more eclectic approach, Pam Hale offers workshops and individual sessions on photography for therapeutic purposes from her home in Tucson, Arizona. Her website, Through a Different Lens, describes therapeutic photography more broadly: “any use of photography that enhances learning, human growth or healing.”
Therapeutic photography isn’t confined to active camera work. Weiser uses a technique called “photo projection” which invites clients to view photographs from many sources and respond to them, speculating about the story behind the picture and observing their own reactions to what they see in it. In this way, she says, photographs can expose the client’s own memories and feelings, and stimulate reflection and understanding.
Outside the therapeutic arena, the power of photography is expressed again and again by practitioners themselves. Dorothea Lange, whose portraits of Dust Bowl poverty gained international acclaim, once said, “the camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Likewise, street photography pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the experience of photography as more than snapping the shutter: “It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”
What makes a photograph such a potent tool for healing? A photograph is a moment frozen in time, taken out of its larger context. It contains multiple layers of meaning. What we see in the frame conveys, on one level, pure information: this is a picture of a girl dancing; here is a photograph of a man walking down a road. Beyond that, though, elements of composition, color (or the tones of black and white), and the connotations of objects carry a wealth of associations, metaphorical meanings and emotional coloring. Photographs both capture and create realities.
In viewing a photograph, as in other kinds of art, we co-create the image with the one who makes it. And certainly, in making a photograph, we co-create the image with the subject, falling into the moment of oneness described so vividly by Cartier-Bresson and others. However we experience it, photography creates opportunities to step, however briefly, into a place where different realities intersect; a place where new windows are opened, both on the world and on ourselves.
Judy Weiser, PhotoTherapy Techniques--Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums (Vancouver: PhotoTherapy Centre Press, 1999), 284.
Thank you for a very interesting read and great links to both Weiser's book as well as Hale's site.
I suggest you check out thecoachingame.com. This tool which is made up of 65 cards is similar to Pam Hale's in that its used by coaches, therapists, social workers and HR people but has its own unique content.
Readers of your article may be interested in it! :)
C.J., thank you very much for writing this article! I just came across it during a Google search and had not known about it earlier -- and after reading it, I need to tell you that you really "got it"!
What you wrote is very similar to why Pam (who I've known for over 20 years now!) and I do our work: you discussed the fascination of photographs as a means of telling stories and connecting people with feelings and memories at a very deep level (sometimes even out of conscious awareness).
You asked: "What makes a photograph such a potent tool for healing?" and I would answer this by saying that at least one reason photos are so powerful is that they are not just about the "what" of the picture, but also (and usually more importantly) about the "WHY" of it. There are reasons for a photo's existence, reasons for why that moment was selected for making permanent and keeping to see again...
As a psychologist and art therapist using "PhotoTherapy" techniques, I find that exploring those reasons gives me and my client new ways to understand their problems or their life -- and people using similar techniques to explore themselves when a therapist is not needed (the techniques of Therapeutic Photography) discover the same thing for themselves.
On the website "PhotoTherapy Techniques in Counseling and Therapy" there is much more about both kinds of techniques, and I urge you and other readers to spend time there -- it's like a small book with a page for explaining the differences between the two kinds of practices, a page for each technique with real-life examples, articles that can be downloaded for free, recommended readings, about the history of the field (which dates back over 30 years -- is actually not new!), lists of student Theses and Dissertations on both topics, training information, as well as lots of links.
There is also a page called "who is doing what where", that gives a small paragraph about dozens of people and how they are using photos to help people "picture their lives" better. There's even a paragraph about Pam Hale's work there!
Website address is http://www.phototherapy-centre.com and people are welcome to contact me directly, at: JWeiser@phototherapy-centre.com for more info.
Thanks again for featuring me, my work, my site, and my book -- I deeply appreciate this opportunity you've provided us to let people know about these exciting techniques!
Judy Weiser, Psychologist and Art Therapist, Consultant, Trainer, and Director of PhotoTherapy Centre and Author of "PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums"
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