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Photography & Mental Health

Posted by Esther Kontny on

We find ourselves in a unique time in history. Not only are we in the midst of a global pandemic, we are also witnessing tensions rise throughout the country around race and politics. Since stress levels are high, I thought it would be beneficial to take a moment to talk about the therapeutic nature of photography. This week, we will take a break from discussing the formal aspects of art and focus our attention on the healing abilities of viewing and creating it.

We’ve all taken a photo that we’re really proud of, right? The one that happened almost serendipitously. Maybe we were in the moment and things started to line up perfectly, the weather, our subject etc. As we quickly grabbed the photo we were surprised at the outcome, it captured the moment perfectly! Or maybe it’s not a photo we’ve taken, instead we came across an image by our favorite artist of a breathe-taking landscape. It transported us to another place and we became connected to that landscape on a deeper level. What is it about that image that gave us that jolt of happiness?

Dr Neil Gibson has been doing research on the subject of Therapeutic Photography for several years and his most recent book Therapeutic Photography: Enhancing Self-Esteem, Self Efficacy and Resilience, explores how this self directed and social therapy can act as another non-verbal form of therapy. We are pretty familiar with the practice of art therapy now-a-days, but that has most often consisted of art practices that are more hands on. In therapeutic photography, however, the focus is on self direction and exploration. There is no requirement of skill or understanding of exposure, in fact you can use what you’ve got in your hand (a cell phone).

This practice is based on the long lived assumption that photography is in fact a mirror. And that every image is stamped with the impression of the photographer. I love how Judy Weiser puts it, “Every photograph is actually an organization of experiences.” When facilitating this work, Dr Gibson makes an intentional decision to not add meaning to the photograph, but instead he lets the photographer speak about it first and then opens up the conversation to the rest of the group. By doing it this way, his clients can pull out aspects of the photograph that they were trying to capture and control the discussion. This is where therapeutic photography diverts from phototherapy, a separate therapy practice where trained therapists or counselors interpret their clients photographs for hidden meanings.

What fascinated me about Dr Gibson’s study was that he didn’t expect the same result from each individual. Some clients came out of the group with more self-esteem in simply being able to create something meaningful to them. While others felt like they had a bit more control over their feelings and could practice self-disclosure in a healthy way. I have found this overwhelmingly true when I search photography and mental health on the internet. Several artists have written or vlogged about how photography has helped them overcome periods of depression or in dealing with grief. It can be calming to channel your energy into creating something, and in many cases, it gives yourself a reason to go outside.

The unique thing about photography compared to other forms of art is that you are using reality to create images, rather than a blank canvas. When we start searching for the beautiful things that surround us, our mindset starts to shift, our pace slows down and we start to become more thoughtful. Rick Sammon, a prolific photographer and writer, phrases this practice as a ‘one photo mindset’. In his workshops he emphasizes the importance of waiting for the shot rather than shooting until you get the shot. By storing up memory around the image we can then recall how we felt taking it later on, and our result is usually less images but higher quality ones. Landscape and nature photographers will often express that the act of walking around in nature is the most therapeutic part of their work. Even if they return without capturing anything.

Early in his career, Dr Gibson, decided to shoot a single image every day for an entire year, not for any particular reason besides his love for the medium. But at the end of the year when he looked back on his 365 images he found that he could remember every moment and feeling when that photo was taken. He realized that a photograph has a secondary affect on the photographer once they are viewed long after they were taken. I personally print a lot of my photos for this exact reason, I am often trying to recall a fond memory or feeling that I had while I took the photo. I admit this isn’t always the case when I choose what to hang in my house (sometimes it is purely aesthetic) but the ones that have more weight when I look at them, are the ones that have memory embedded into them.

When it comes to looking at someone else’s work, I think we can still feel what the artist was feeling on a more subconscious level. If they were anxious during an event or they had just gone through a break-up and took some self-portraits, the camera mirrors that. For example, my practice is very contemplative and meditative. I photograph fairly normal scenarios around my neighborhood and city. It is extremely important that I am in a thoughtful place when I pick up my camera because if I’m not, whether I’m stressed or rushed, it will show up in my photos. When I look through them later, those particular frames don't align with my vision.

As photographers we don’t always take our own mood into account when we show up to shoot a wedding or someone’s graduation photos as much as we probably should. If we know that our mood in turn effects the outcome or success of our images we should be intentional in creating that space. As a portrait photographer, our interactions with our model should help them feel at ease. Likewise, if we are shooting a wedding or family session we should focus most of our energy on creating a memory and fun experience rather than getting the pose just right. Ultimately, when the client looks through their photos, they will begin to remember those moments, and if we are successful, that will make the images that much more meaningful.

If we circle back to deciding what photos to hang and frame, we can apply the same strategy. Instead of looking for the picture perfect pose or the one where everyone is smiling, we should focus on the images with the fondest memories. It may not be the head shot you use for your resume that invokes meaning, but instead the low-quality cellphone picture that was taken in the middle of a sweaty hike in the Colorado mountains.

And similarly, there are photos that another artist creates that might conjure up memories that they have never personally experienced. It could be a European landscape that reminds you of a time when you backpacked cross-country years ago, or possibly a sunset that reminds you of home. Art has the ability to evoke nostalgia and euphoria unlike anything else. It is layered with meaning both from the creator and viewer (and photography is most definitely included in that.) We are always subconsciously looking for connections, and the emotion surrounding an image can bring healing if we choose to use it in that way.

Today, choose to photograph with intention and look for the beauty that surrounds you in your everyday life. Find photos you’ve taken, or that others have taken, and allow yourself to be caught up in the memory that surrounds it.


All images from the series "Winter Solstice" by Esther J Kontny

Written by Esther J Kontny


View our gallery here, and find some photos that transport you to a serene place.





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