Depth of Field, volume 5, no 1 (December 2014)Hilde Braet: Instrumental Photography. The Use of the Medium Photography to Stimulate Empowerment

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Photography and therapy

There are pictures everywhere and everyone has a camera to take them. You press the button and the image appears. This is the reason why working with pictures is easily accessible and everyone can do it. For many people, it is a tool to express themselves in a way that is less complicated than words. Pictures refer directly to a reality that can be given significance. This significance is not contained in the image itself, but instead constructed through denotation and connotation, which lead to a subjective interpretation. The medium's singularity is also applied in therapeutic photography. Psychologist and art therapist Judy Weiser, who is the founder and director of the PhotoTherapy Centre in Vancouver and considered to be an authority on the emotional meaning of photographs, defines ‘Therapeutic Photography’ as photographs of individuals taken by and for themselves in non-therapeutic settings for the purpose of their own personal growth and insight.[9] Therapeutic Photography is to be distinguished from ‘PhotoTherapy’, which she defines as photography used by therapists, i.e. trained mental health professionals, as part of their formal psychotherapeutic process.

From 1983 to 1992, Rosy Martin (b. 1946) and Jo Spence (1934-1992) analysed the concept of ‘identity’ by taking self-portraits and photographing the course of Spence’s disease process. In 1982, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer. From that time forward, she took self-portraits, often in cooperation with Martin, portraying her battle with her illness. She tried to make explicit the social construction of identities with the drama of daily life. Photographic images form our sense and our feeling of reality. The tension between the various truths or contradictions implied by a picture is productive in the therapeutic process. It becomes clear that ‘the truth’ is a construction and that ‘identity’ is fragmented by these various truths. The ‘perfect self’ as a given and unalterable thing is non-existent. The ‘self’ is a process in itself.

Martin and Spence made self-portraits and browsed through their family albums. Most family albums show the same events: they belong to different individuals but still resemble each other. They do not tell us about the life of the individual himself, but reflect what was considered the social norms and values and important moments in a given period. The traditional family album does not tell us the whole story. It is also the construction of a desired reality as well as a fragmentary reproduction of what is and should be, steered by the habits of the society in which one lives. The pictures from the family album are often commonplace, but because they are emotionally charged, we cannot do without them.[10] Martin and Spence drew attention to events that were not worth including in the family album, such as pictures of disease, death and daily tasks. They created an alternative family album, showed censured aspects of life, and shaped another sense of reality that contrasted with the predominant visual culture. Seeing less flattering pictures and accepting them as a part of life can have a healing effect. In this manner, they also reconstructed their personal history and criticized vexing social issues, such as the objectification of the patient and the stereotyping of lesbian women.[11] Becoming the subject of your own life – and not the object – gives empowerment to those who are constructed and stereotyped based on their sexuality, disability, age, gender, race, and class.