“ When I look at these portraits, I realise that three weeks ago I wouldn't have dreamt of talking to anyone, I would have turned away.” John, 2009
The healing and transformative potential of the arts and their value in supporting mental wellbeing has long been recognised. There is now a growing evidence base to support the claims for the impact of the arts on our mental health but still we need to ask; how is photography therapeutic? We think of photography in relation to our holiday snaps shots, to news reporting or celebrity doorstopping, but it is not often that we consider its potential in relation to therapeutic work.
When we dwell on how photographs accompany us throughout our lives- how they relate to our memories, how they link us to who we are and how we perceive ourselves and each other- then we can start to imagine its huge potential as a creative tool to explore the world we live in and our own relation to it.
To pick up and use a camera, one does not need extensive training - it is immediate and accessible and requires no specific skills or knowledge. Photography provides an open-ended invitation to play, explore and discover.
Before considering the potential of photography as a therapeutic support tool we first need to broaden our understanding of what photography involves. Whilst the focus in photography tends to fall on the decisive moment, the act of pressing the shutter and taking a picture, this is only a small part of the photographic process. The key therapeutic power of photography lies in its ability to enable dialogue and communication about ourselves and with others, and this centres around a notion of the whole photographic process that involves:
Photography involves endless decisions. It asks us to frame the world - decide what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise and what to overlook. As such photography helps us to form a sense of our selves and our place. It requires we take an active stance and in this sense promotes initiative and purpose.
It is possible to highlight a number of qualities of the photographic process which make it valuable for therapeutic support work:
Exploring self, identity and memories
“It’s another accessory, a part of you, nothing else around you matters, you know…it’s just you and that piece of equipment you’re using.” Workshop participant
Acting as a distraction
For others, photography can offer respite from distressing symptoms and an opportunity for distraction and to forget about your problems. Within medical approaches to mental health individuals become patients or service-users, but within a photographic project people become photographers and remain in control of their own activities.
“It made me forget, every time I came here I forgot about all my worries, I seem to have left my worries at home. I mean to come back to them but it’s given me a focus”. Workshop participant
“Are the groups therapeutic?...My view is that they shouldn’t be, the therapy should be incidental to the whole endeavour. Some of these people will have been through everything, psychiatrist, doctors, the whole shooting match and this is really time out from all of this, trying to put your problems in perspective” Facilitator and former mental health service-user
A means of creating order
Creates distance and containmentIn photographing something we objectify it. The resulting photograph is itself an object. Through photography we can gain a sense of distance from the subject of our picture. PhotoVoice’s experience of working with vulnerable people indicates that photography’s therapeutic benefits are linked to its potential for looking and discussing at an arm’s length, through pictures, issues which are difficult or sensitive creates distance, perspective and a sense of safety. In this sense photography can play a protective function. We can take pictures or talk about pictures that might reflect traumatic or distressing things but stay one step removed by focussing on the picture or the act of photographing rather than the direct emotions. Therapists have noted that ordering pictures, putting them in albums and journals may be a factor in containing. In addition participants in PhotoVoice projects have found the act of photographing can create a buffer zone that allows them to engage with the external world but from a safe distance. It occupies them in an activity that distracts
from other destabilising fears, concerns and preoccupations.
Encourages sharing, storytelling and dialogueSharing your photos with other people can help build bonds, friendships and networks, encouraging dialogue and communication. Evidence from one project showed that when photography was used at a residential unit the interaction between patients stimulated their emotional support of each other.Central to all PhotoVoice projects is group discussion where people talk about photographs together – their own and other peoples- encouraging exchange, social networks and peer support.
Photography is a narrative medium - pictures tell stories and they can help us to tell our own stories and to share them with others. Telling and sharing stories with pictures enables us to explore meanings, memories and significance, which can have a cathartic and healing effect. Taking pictures of people you care about and sharing them with them can reflect and strengthen relationships.
“It’s quite difficult taking photos when you are depressed, you know, getting organised…this course is a bit like art therapy…you can express what you want to express, saying this is how I feel” Workshop participant
It is not just the contents of the photographs themselves that can be important but the memories, feelings and thoughts that may emerge during the dialogue that happens as we look at and discuss pictures. Talking about pictures, asking questions about them, may reveal the layers of meaning we assign to photographs – values, attitudes and expectations that may be either or unconscious or conscious . It should be noted that significant therapeutic work, that digs deeply into people’s emotions and memories, when there is the possibility of uncovering traumatic or distressing memories, should only be done with the support of trained mental health professionals.
Overcomes barriers to verbal expression
Participating in photographic workshops or other arts projects can boost the self-esteem of people living with mental distress. The confidence, self-esteem and sense of pride in their achievement can enable people to feel more resilient and able to cope. The evaluation of the photographic workshops run jointly by PhotoVoice and United Response showed that participants gained self-esteem, and for some this lasted beyond the duration of the course. As well as the sense of achievement in learning a new skill or developing an existing one, participants took pride in their photographs and in sharing them with the group. For many participants, the workshops also gave them a sense of purpose and a boost to their self-confidence
Photography allows people to take ownership of a creative process and feel proud of the work they produce. Mastering a skill and knowing you have the ability to take good photographs is for many a rewarding experience. Learning something new in terms of mastering the functions of a digital camera and knowing you are capable of doing this is a boost to people’s self-esteem and sense of personal capacity. Many people find a new ‘voice’ though photography as it enables them to communicate about things they feel strongly about, issues that move or interest them in a different way. In PhotoVoice’s experience photography is accessible for people of all abilities, camera equipment can be adapted to enable people with mobility issues and physical impairments to enjoy taking pictures. Pictures are easily presented in exhibitions, digital presentations, printed in digital books or as postcards. When photographs are presented to an audience – of peers, family and friends or even public audiences – the experience can be affirming and validating for the photographers.
“Sometimes when the pictures go on the wall….and they sort of put you on the spot to describe what you were thinking or feeling then I have been able to say something….that’s quite good for me.” Workshop participant
“…When I took one person home he said, “I can’t remember the last time someone clapped and applauded something I have done”, he was so chuffed” Workshop facilitator
Provides opportunities to get out and overcome social isolation
Social exclusion greatly affects people living with mental distress who may feel unable to get about by themselves, may not have access to transport and may have had long periods of unemployment and/or in residential units – all factors contributing to isolation from their local communities . Photography provides a focus and reason to get out and about. Arranging for outshoots to local areas – parks, beauty spots, high streets – can provide opportunities to explore the local community, explore new environments and reconnect with old places.
“I don’t stand out when I’m out and about and having a camera I just ignore everyone, there was one photo…I had to literally lie on the floor to take it, and people must have thought I was a complete nutcase (laughs) but I didn’t care particularly, it was just, I wanted the shot.” Workshop participant
Most of the participants of the PhotoVoice/ United Response workshops said they enjoyed the experience of meeting new people. Many had to overcome a degree of trepidation when entering the group for the first time. Some described a sense of belonging and felt encouraged to join other groups because this experience had proved so positive.
“I won’t be so frightened about joining a new group having joined this group. I was a bit frightened when I first come here because I knew nobody.” Workshop participant
Exploring self, identity and memories
“People keep telling me how good I am….I find it hard to think they are meaning it.” Workshop participant
Provides opportunities to get out and explore
Photography has numerous qualities that give it huge potential as a therapeutic tool but such examples demonstrate the delicate nature of the work. Practitioners need at all times to be sensitive to the needs and mental well being of the people they are working with.
Questions to consider:
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