Article in Arts / Art / Photography
Photography is a tool for meditation, mindfulness and creative living. Now the emerging field of phototherapy embraces the power of making and viewing photographs for healing and personal transformation. Why are photographs so powerful?

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.


Pam Hale's Through a Different Lens phototherapy site
Judy Weiser's phototherapy resource and training site


Judy Weiser, PhotoTherapy Techniques--Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums (Vancouver: PhotoTherapy Centre Press, 1999), 284.

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