In my MA Project I am exploring truth and beauty using photography and psychology. At the heart of my work is a hypothesis that there is not ‘one’ or ‘the’ truth about any individual and that through exploration it might be possible to find other equally true truths that can lead to improved chances of personal growth. Similarly my hypothesis is that many individuals do not see how beautiful they are. Indeed in todays media world projecting perfect beauty at us too many people feel they are not as beautiful as they should be. In Womans Health Magazine polling women in 2015 ‘a whopping 96 percent said they wouldn’t use the word “beautiful” to describe themselves.’ (source)
I have experienced a positive therapeutic boost from the process of photographing and studying myself within my MA Project (The Truth & Beauty of Me). I also have seen anecdotally how showing images of people to themselves can have a big impact on their self esteem and self image. My wife is chronically ill in a wheelchair and is experiencing a lot of pain and discomfort. It is easy to feel this is what life was always like. However, when I show her images from her past it evokes positive emotions and can enable her to relive some of those moments and change her ‘in the moment’ view of herself and her experience of life.
It has been a wonderfully uplifting experience sitting with my wife and just playing with photographs from the past and talking about them.
Barthes writes famously about searching for his mother.
‘There I was, alone in the apartment she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted in to an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time, her brother seven. I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.’ (Barthes, 1980:63)
I have highlighted in bold the word ‘truth’ as a link to the idea I am exploring. Barthes is here seeking a particular truth he wants to confirm. When I read this piece for the first time I yearned to see the photograph. As I thought about this it made me wonder if it would reveal some secret about memories of my own mother. In the image of Karen as a young child above I did not know her then but to my eye I see so much that I love about her in that image. Barthes never left us the image of his mother he wrote about which also has its own impact on our own minds as we consider what it might have looked like.
It is easy to glance over a photograph as millions do every minute every day in social media. It is very hard not to respond to a photograph if asked to consider it and explain what you see. It is even harder if it is an image of yourself or someone you have feelings for. We actually do not have the conscious control we might think we have in this process. As Ulla Halkola points out
‘biologically and socially significant simuli automatically direct human attention. Attention orienting mechanisms allow us to select meaningful information from our environment by increasing efficiency at the expense of other information processes.’ (Halkola, 21)
Thus in the same way a flower turns towards the sun our unconscious processes turn us towards an image believing there to be more meaningful information for us there than anything else currently available to us.
The enquiry for me is to explore this therapeutic interaction between viewer, photograph and words. As I reviewed literature on the subject I discovered there is a lot already written about under the headings of phototherapy and therapeutic photography.
I will start with some definitions and then go in to work that has already been done in this area of photography and psychology.
Steward (1979:42) defines phototherapy as, ‘the use of photography or photographic materials, under the guidance of a trained therapist, to reduce or relieve painful psychological symptoms and to facilitate psychological growth and therapeutic change.’
Therapeutic Photography is the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place and no therapist or counsellor needs to be involved. (Source Phototherapy Centre)
There continues to be much debate over who is appropriately qualified to carry out each of these forms of help. The balance of opinion is phototherapy is psychotherapy with photography so psychotherapy training is necessary. Therapeutic photography is a process between untrained participants using photographs in the process.
I have a Masters in Psychology from Birkbeck College, am trained in the application of Gestalt Psychology by the Cleveland Institute in the USA and worked with my own practice as an executive coach with Board level executives for the last ten years.
Photographs as a mechanism for change
In my coaching practice I described success with a client occurring when the client heard herself speak and as a result was able to change her worldview in a way that would support her own personal growth. My task was to arrive with a blank mind, to have no solutions, ask questions, listen, observe resistance and keep the client in a safe place when exploring difficult issues of self and its boundaries.
Four very simple, but in fact, very difficult questions underpinned my practice.
- What do you want?
- What is getting in the way?
- What are you going to do about it?
- What help do you need?
In my MA project I have noticed that if I give somebody a photograph or a sequence of photographs and ask them what does it say there is always an answer. People project on to photographs their own issues and interpretations of the world. I always have photographs on our dining table at home and ask people to rearrange them, tell me what works or doesn’t and what stories do they tell. Carers and visitors really get involved and look forward to the next set. There are so many different views expressed.
There is substantial literature and bodies of work already established in this space.
A photograph as a therapeutic experience
Photographs are a global visual non verbal language that can reconstruct memory in the moment and help people change for the better. As Halkola puts it.
- Phototherapy stresses the importance of non verbal communication in the therapeutic relationship and during the therapy sessions.
- Memories and emotions related to childhood relationships can be evoked through childhood photographs in a significant way.
- Through using photographs and photography in psychotherapy, it is possible to facilitate an empowering experience for those clients who have suffered from a lack of acceptance and care.
Tarja Koffert offers that ‘autobiographical photos and the taking of self portraits has a powerful therapeutic effect. (Halkola:23)
Tulving (1989) introduced the idea of ‘specificity of encoding, according to that unique way in which an event in one’s mind and how it is encoded in to the mind, also determine how the event will be retrieved. It is beneficial for the process of remembering if the circumstances during encoding and retrieving are similar.
Schacter (1996) tells us that ‘in order for us to improve our understanding of ourselves we must one way or another find or create clues that help us remember forgotten events. Without memory clues these events would disappear.’
What better clues could there be than a photograph?
The self-portrait as self therapy – Cristina Nuñez
The discovery of the work by Cristina Nuñez has been a revelation. All of a sudden everything I am doing fell in to place. She has covered the ground I am interested in and in her TED talk she lays out powerfully her process of making self portraits for her own therapy. It is in Italian with subtitles but is really worth watching if this subject interests you. It is full of insight, energy and emotion about how complex we all are as human beings and how rarely we look closely at our selves in any depth. If we do there is a lot to learn.
Cristina has been taking self portraits for more than 20 years. Like me she did not realise she was doing self therapy when she started this activity. As I looked at her personal work I recognised what I have been trying to do with my project The Truth & Beauty of Me.
As a child Cristina felt ‘invisible‘ and experienced ‘low self esteem.’ These ‘feelings of inadequacy generated huge rage.’ She says ‘When my father left my mother, she fell in to a deep depression. I was only 12 and began to feel even less seen.’ (Nuñez:95)
As I started out on my project answering my tutor Cemre Yesil’s question ‘is there any pain in my life’ I found the camera became a source of therapy for the pain I am experiencing. Cristina says ‘I felt the camera could be used to understand myself better and so I turned the camera lens to myself and took my first self portrait. It was 1988. Through self portraiture I had found a way to re create the loving gaze of my mother – and I was now able to be independent; to become adult.’ (Nuñez:95). For me personally in my project I became aware of a positive therapeutic effect from turning the camera on me. The work of Cristina is validating my own experience and generating further curiosity about the potential of this activity for self healing and personal growth.
Cristina has built her own method and has created workshops and retreats. The mirror comes in to play (as in Spence and Pannack further on in this essay). She refers to Stefano Ferrari (2002:79) quoting his ‘third phase of the mirror’
‘The child recognises the image in the mirror as his own and identifies with it, he becomes that image. This identification of the child with the image in the mirror is primary identification, and the matrix of every other subsequent identification.’ (Nuñez:96)
In her method she realised that ‘facing the camera and pressing the shutter can take us immediately to that first process of definition of the self.’ (Nuñez:96)
She goes further as she speaks of transforming pain in to art (reference again Cemre’s inspirational question ‘is there any pain in my life?’). Cristina expresses it thus…
‘I believe that difficult emotions are the raw material for art, and if we seek deep contact with them while taking self portraits, this will stimulate the unconscious to ‘speak’ with the language of art. Standing alone in front of the camera is the easiest way to stimulate our deepest emotions and transform them into artworks.’ (Nuñez:96)
I continue to quote as she now puts in to words so eloquently what has been forming in my own mind as I seek to explain what has been happening with my own self portraiture.
‘A work of art, as I understand it, is an image that contains multiple meanings, often contrasting: it deals intimately with the human condition, it contains a rich diversity of stimuli to thought and feeling, and it possesses a special relationship with time, all within a harmonious configuration of aesthetic and formal elements.
Facing the camera lens can bring about an opportunity for a unique experience and deep non verbal dialogue. My human eye scrutinises the mechanical eye, gazing in to the bottomless pit, in search of an image that captures my vision of myself, or one that shows the other in me. Shot after shot I live through all my different personas, looking for something I still do not know about myself. I might judge myself, or control my behaviour so that the image will be more acceptable to others. Whatever I do, I will always succeed: my sheer humanity will always be expressed in the picture.’ Nuñez:96)
‘Whatever I do, I will always succeed: my sheer humanity will always be expressed in the picture.’ This is a gold nugget of insight for me. I kept searching for something I wanted to ‘represent’ or ‘give meaning’ to my own state of pain not realising that any image of me has all of my ‘own humanity’ within it. I realise for a portfolio some images I show will be more equal than others. This insight also fits with a great provocation from another tutor Laura Hynd who encouraged me to try not ‘representing’ or ‘making meaning’, leave the cognitive behind and show what the emotional or sensing mechanisms lead my lens towards.
I conclude with Cristina statement that
The decision to represent oneself can provide what I call a ‘state of grace’ the feeling of centredness that happens in moment of creative work where the emotions are naturally retained because our creative self is in command.
Cristina has created a workshop called the Self Portrait Experience. I quote from the web site.
‘The Self-Portrait Experience® is a journey through all aspects of one’s life with the self-portrait, in three parts: Me, Me and the Other, Me and the World, each containing various self-portrait exercises, and a series of artistic criteria for the perception and the selection of the works, and guidelines for the autobiographical project build-up.
During her workshops, Nuñez invites participants to produce collaborative self-portraits in her studio, following her directions but without her presence. Some of these images are part of Nuñez’s art project Higher Self, which has been exhibited at the Casino of Luxemburg, at The Private Space gallery in Barcelona and the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki, among others.
Nuñez has pursued a research on the power of the self-portrait and her essay “Self-portrait as Self-Therapy” has been published on academic publications such as the European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Routledge, London and “Autofocus” by Prof. Stefano Ferrari and Prof. Chiara Tartarini, of the University of Bologna.’
I will write to Cristina to see if she plans a workshop in 2020 and to ask her where she thinks research is heading in her own practice. If she has a workshop I will do everything I can to attend.
Jo Spence’s camera therapy
I have mentioned the relevance of Jo Spence’s work in a previous post The Truth & Beauty of You – Other Players. Here I wish to add some extra insights from Terry Dennet (Dennet:Ch 3)
Jo Spence’s work explores in depth the relationship between photographing, a photograph and what happens to a person interacting with these processes. Dennet suggests ‘the task of the director/photographer is to process the spectator through a series of ‘collisions’ or shocks.’ (Dennet:p31). I have noticed when I give someone a photograph and ask them what it is about there is always an answer. Each answer is different for each person I ask and it is fascinating if the picture is an image of the person being asked.
Jo Spence used a mirror within her practice. I know that looking in a mirror for any period of time is quite challenging and a deepening introspection happens to me when I do it. For Spence the mirror was seen as ‘a tool for a ‘reflective participation’ with herself – a means whereby she could be both patient and imaginary therapist, both self and other.’ (Dennet:33)
Spence used scripting for her therapy work. ‘Scripting is a semi-ritualistic method for mapping out the basic elements of a therapeutic photo drama prior to it being photographed.‘ (Dennet:33). In my own project I have explored staging and scripting as ways to create representations of something I feel or have felt. In a therapeutic setting using photography/images I can see scripting being used as a guide to start the process in the same way my four questions ‘what do you want…etc’ was used in my coaching practice.
Spence developed the idea of collaborative photo therapy. In this form there is ‘reciprocal peer to peer counselling where each participant takes turns being counsellor and client’ (Dennet:34). And ‘Spence and Martin…reevaluation of the usual photographer sitter/client relationship: the sitter becomes creative director while the photographer’s role is elevated to that of therapist; the camera operation is then seen a simple technical process.’ (Dennett:34)
Digital Self Esteem – Laura Pannack
I came across Laura in her engaging interview by Ben Smith in his podcast A Small Voice. Then last week we had her giving us a live lecture on the Falmouth MA. I love her work and her approach to doing work. In her project Digital Self Esteem she touches on a number of themes relating to my own project and ideas for a retreat.
In her artist statement for the project she says
‘ I feel it is important to reflect on how technology can create boundaries and disassociation as well as encourage engagement and connections. Will the next generation begin to feel like they are a ‘disappointment’ or inadequate version of their edited digital persona and why? (where it becomes worrying is when the illusory virtual self you’re selling is more appealing than the real self.)‘
In this project Laura describes the set up.
‘Working with a two way mirror I asked my subjects all aged between 7 and 17 to really see themselves; spend time with their reflection and confront and accept their appearance. The informal and wild environment of the outdoors created a relaxed and atmospheric setting that encouraged my subjects to feel present as I took the pictures from the other side. I asked the young people to concentrate on areas of their reflection intensely and meditatively let their attention flow around their features. The gaze that is revealed is both present and distant, internal yet revealing. Their expressions make us wonder what they are thinking as they truly gaze at themselves devoid of technology or judgement.’
I link this work to Cristina Nuñez insight above my sheer humanity will always be expressed in the picture. These images make me look and look again. For me they capture that deep introspection that occurs when I look at myself in the mirror for any length of time. For me they are showing the process of seeking to look deeply within the self to discover its true nature.
From my psychology training I know we are constantly being primed and anchored in images of ourselves we ‘should’ be from the constant assault of imagery showing us what perfection is. It does not exist and as a therapist once told me we need to get out of the ‘shouldistic’ world. Using photographs and processes such as the one Laura uses here can enable people to find a much more powerful truth about themselves and see how truly beautiful they are.
This literature review is a big leap forward for me. There is clearly a worthwhile project in The Truth & Beauty of Me that can build on some work already done. There is also a good business to be built around The Truth & Beauty of You working with people and images to help them see themselves in a more powerful light and understand the beauty they are. I am energised to get on with both and also enquire if there is a good research question I want to do further work on in this field.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York. Hill & Wang.
Halkola, U. A photograph as a therapeutic experience. Chapter 2. In Loewenthal, D. (2013) Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age. London and New York. Routledge.
Tulving, E. (1989). Memory: Performance, knowledge and experience. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 1, 3-26.
Dennet, T. Jo Spence’s camera therapy. Personal therapeutic photography as a response to adversity. Chapter 3. In Loewenthal, D. (2013) Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age. London and New York. Routledge.
Nuñez, C. The Self Portrait as Self – Therapy. In Loewenthal, D. (2013) Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age. London and New York. Routledge.