Soulful reflections through phototherapy

When my photographic journey began, I like many other casual photographers captured images for creative and aesthetic pleasure or simply to document moments in our lives. I never really considered the therapeutic benefits that photography can bring.

Last week saw me deliver a talk and take part in a phototherapy symposium, which I had been invited to by The Royal Photographic Society at their headquarters in Bristol to speak about my Best Days Of Your Life photographic project.

The day marked for the symposium was May 22nd, which is an historic anniversary for the phototherapy world as this is when in 1856 Hugh Diamond, a keen photographer and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, presented his paper which defined and termed phototherapy and it’s medical attributes.

Nearly 200 years on Diamond’s definitions as to the benefits of photography to a person’s psyche were recounted by world leaders in this field. The citing of case studies and techniques, all developed with the sole purpose of trying to help people connect with feelings and memories too deep or complex to be reached or understood through words alone.

The therapeutic spectrum of photography at one end is Photo Therapy which is a therapist led process where photos and interactions with them are used during the therapy process to help clients and Therapeutic Photography at the other end is self-directed activities where photos are used for one’s own personal insight or part of a project.

Photographs do have a way of telling stories, or often people who view photos will project stories upon them. This capacity to narrative(s), to play, to construct our own before and after versions of the possible, is a way people have of making some sense of the world. ‘Tell me a story’ the child cries, and we go on doing it, telling ourselves stories all our lives, watching the soap operas, listening to our friends’ anecdotes. So, how can a photograph touch me? A piece of paper…………..

Photography is fundamentally a relationship between the photographer and the viewer. Nothing more, nothing less. At its core, a successful image is about communication: it must tell the viewer the photographers’ intended story, through an entirely and solely visual means of communication. Forget captions and titles, an image must be strong enough to stand on its own and clear enough to tell the intended story without the support of text. Even more importantly, the visual portion has much more immediate impact than the text — simply because text requires conscious processing; images don’t and hold no language barriers.

A strong image has to tell a story: that’s secondary evidence of the viewer being able to make some inferences from the visual cues they are being presented with by the photographer – whether these are correct or not is another question.

Each visual element, or subject, in the frame, is something that has an implied relationship with other subjects in the frame; the depth/complexity/closeness of that relationship is something that is implied by the physical proximity of the objects and other visual similarities like luminance, colour, texture, etc.; for instance, if two things look effectively identical, we assume they are from the same source. The photographer’s job is to control the relationship, or rather implied relationship between these objects by means of light, composition and perspective, so that the viewer forms the right conclusions.

That’s where psychology comes in, because the uniqueness of a photograph can evoke feelings, such as anxiety, fear, familiarity, comfort or reverence depending on the subject and object matter. Photography can have the effect of reflecting the soul and thoughts of the person photographing and photographed.

An image can furthermore educate, inform, inspire, agitate, galvanize, shake up, change. Photography can not only change the way how people feel about themselves — even if just for a moment – photography can also bring about any change.

Because good images transcend, they encourage us to act. For better or worse. The power of the image as a tool in information and propaganda campaigns is as old as the copied, replicated image itself. We all have seen photos that changed the world.

The image as we know it, however, is always a condensed, compressed reality. Each photo has its own story and even motives, more so when post-processed. In the end though it’s not the photographer who makes the photo. It’s the subject. With the photo as a very personal, individual reflection of your-self. That’s why there are no two identical photos on earth. A photograph is as individual as the subject.

Even though a photographer consciously photographs a person, landscape or object, in the end it is always his or her psyche that creates the interpretation of light rays that gives each image its individual power.

As a photographer, I have realised how even the smallest or run of the mill type photography can still have profound therapeutic benefits to those being photographed.

At a recent headshot shoot. I met a lady who had recently undergone a battle with cancer and won. Facially scarred, confidence low she had begun to face the world once again, but still could not bare to have her photograph taken. After we met and chatted, and talked of her reservations, we decided to embrace the photograph and make it a celebration of her overcoming this trauma.

This image has become the vehicle for her empowerment and she tells me fills her with confidence. A rewarding compliment to receive, but I have realised that as a photographer the degree to which people will allow you to take their photo entirely depends on your attitude towards them. So, even though we say ‘taking an image’, it is actually one of ‘giving’. Giving your own sympathy, your interest, your kindness, your compassion, your openness.

This allows us to see more deeply and pay more attention to what we hear, feel, think, and see. We learn to ask questions; these questions will often enlighten us about particular things we used to be worried or confused with.

This is therapeutic because it enables people to enhance understanding and learning; which ultimately empowers and heals.