John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Image Therapeutics

image therapeutics photography

Can photography be therapeutic?

Psychologists and other mental health professionals think so. They define something as “therapeutic” if it enhances insight into yourself, promotes the awareness and expression of underlying feelings, and moves your identity into new, more rewarding directions. All of these things are possible through photography on at least three different levels:

1. The therapeutic qualities of taking and post-processing photos

2. The therapeutic qualites of viewing and reflecting on images

3. The therapeutic qualities of sharing and discussing images with others

Some theories claim that images are a powerful vehicle for psychological expression. They enable you to communicate experiences that cannot be captured easily by words, or that might in fact be distorted by conscious attempts to verbalize them. They contain symbols that point to things unseen, to deeper layers of the mind. Like dreams, they are highly creative constructions that convey a wide range of emotions, memories, needs, and wishes. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, many ideas can be condensed into a single image, making it a powerful way to represent your identity. A photograph can be a concrete, external representation of what you are, fear, or need to be. It offers a seemingly more real and tangible form for internal experiences that otherwise might elude you. By providing an identifiable representation of your inner life, a photo can help you master the problematic aspects of your personality.

Drawing pictures and describing the images one sees inside one's mind have been an important component of psychotherapy for decades. More recently, in the form of psychotherapy known as “phototherapy,” people are encouraged to discuss their personal and family snapshots. Judy Weiser, one of the pioneers of this type of work, identifies five different categories of photographs that can be explored in phototherapy:

Self-portraits, which clearly serve as representations of your identity encouraing you look at yourself from an objective viewpoint. When given the opportunity, how do you choose to “create” yourself in an image? Does it express your real self, your ideal self, or what you fear about yourself? Is it how you want others to see you? Does it reveal something about your identity that might not be obvious to some people?

Shots taken of you by other people, which help you understand how others see you, what they value about you, and the nature of your relationship to them. How do their perceptions of you and your relationships compare to your own perceptions?

Photos taken or collected by you, which reveal what you think is important in life, as well as give you a sense of mastery over those things that you “capture.” In a sense, any photo you take or like is a self-portrait because it says something about you.

Your photo albums or collections, which reflect your attempt to organize your personal and family history. What do you include and exclude from your collection? What does this say about how you want to remember, as well as present to others, your vision of yourself, friends, and family?

Your reaction to any photo, because no two people see the same photo in exactly the same way. Each of us project our own personal feelings, memories, and meanings into a picture. Everyone’s perspective is valid. Accepting this means accepting each other.

Therapeutic Photography versus Photo Therapy

Image therapeutics is by no means limited to the context of professional psychotherapy. Some people use the term “therapeutic photography” to refer to the growth-promoting process of creating pictures on one’s own. As we all know, digital photography and the Internet have made it so easy to create and share images that many people are doing so. Perhaps one of the attractions of modern photography is its potential as a therapeutic activity. It provides us with a compelling new form of personal growth.

Sharing Photos Online

Online photosharing communities are thriving with millions of members and billions of photos. In some cases they are the newest manifestation of the support group or "mutual aid" movement that began in the 1960s. As in art therapy, creating an image is a process of self-insight, emotional catharsis, the working through of conflicts, and the affirmation of one's evolving identity. Going public with the image may enhance that process. We can learn about ourselves and help each other by sharing our photos. In fact, it's not uncommon in online photosharing communities to find groups devoted to a particular types of mental health issues – such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, borderline personality disorders, dissociative identity disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, self-harm, suicide, stress, and ADHD. Such groups are grass roots illustrations of image therapeutics.

One doesn't necessarily have to belong to these types of groups to experience the therapeutic aspects of image creation and sharing. Ask people who participate in any kind of photosharing - via their computer or phone - to hear how they personally benefit from it. How do they use it to share their thoughts, feelings, and their lives?


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

If you liked this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Online Photo-sharing Communities
The Varieties of Self-Portrait Experiences

photo psy Johari's Window


The Psychologically Beneficial Aspects of Photography (pdf)- by Adam Natoli

In this article, Adam Natoli reviews the literature about therapeutic photography and phototherapy, then describes a research study in which subjects were instructed to "take photographs of anything that you find interesting or that feels important to you and your life." A week later, Natoli used the Quality of Life scale and standard questions from Phototherapy techniques to assess what kind of therapeutic effect the subjects might have experienced as they reflected on the photographs they remembered and forgot. Natoli found that forgotten photos related to negative aspects of the person's life, while photographs remembered related to positive aspects of their lives as well as a desire for relaxation.

photo psychology


Phototherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums - Judy Weiser

Most photographers know a great deal about the technical aspects of how to design images, but not nearly enough about the personal psychological and emotional reactions people have to them. Many people, including photographers, simply don't know how to talk about the meanings, memories, thoughts, and feelings they perceive in photos, including their own.

Here's where Weiser's work offers a powerful supplement to the conventional education of photographers. Still considered the definitive text on the therapeutic aspects of photography, Weiser's book is intended for psychotherapists who want to understand how creating and viewing images can be used for personal insight and growth. But this is information that any photographer needs to know, including both the professional wedding photographer would wants to offer shots that strike an emotional chord with the couple, as well as the fine art photographer who pursues images as a form of self-expression.

By exploring your self-portraits, photos of you taken by other people, any photos you take or collect, and the various kinds of albums you create, you can better understand yourself, your relationships, and your life, including photography's role in it. Understanding the conscious and unconscious reactions you have to images will make you a better photographer. Weiser's book can give you those insights about yourself and your work, as well as the questions you need to ask when discussing photos with people.



therapeutic photography

Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age - Del Loewenthal (editor)

As a more recent work than Weiser's text, this book explores the basic principles of therapeutic photography as well as phototherapy. The various chapters include discussions of re-enactment phototherapy, community phototherapy, self-portraiture, and family photography. It's a good sampling of how different authorities on phototherapy and therapeutic photography think about these topics.

healing photography

God is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art - Jan Phillips

Rather than covering the conventional ideas about phototherapy and therapeutic photography, this book focuses more on the healing aspects of photography as a form of creativity, spirituality, and "mindfulness." It's thesis is that personal healing comes from learning to see the world clearly.


healing photography

Exploring the Self Through Photography - Claire Craig

In her book Claire Craig focusses on how principles about therapeutic photography and phototherapy can be applied to working with groups. She explains her approach, who it can help, and how to set up and run a group. Each chapter revolves around a key self-development theme, such as communication, reflection, relationship-building and self-esteem. With the description of each actiivty, Craig also offers a warm-up to the activity as well as a follow-up exercise. The book includes examples of photographs taken by participants in response to the activities, along with explanations that provide inspiration. This practical guide can be used in group work across a broad range of contexts, including schools, colleges, youth groups, community settings, residential care, in-patient and day hospitals.


healing photography

A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life - Graham Gordon Ramsay and Holly Barlow Sweet

A psychologist and professional photographer join forces in writing this book about better understanding your life: who you are, what you value, and what you wish to achieve.

A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life includes exercises that draw on the power of photography, art, and writing as tools for self-discovery. It provides guidelines on how to explore different parts of your identity: take a photograph of yourself in a role you don't typically play, draw a visual timeline of your life and consider its key turning points; explore your sense of place in history by writing about a major historical event that has changed your life. Exercises are accompanied by questions for self-reflection, and are complemented by examples of each exercise to provoke ideas and inspiration. The chapters cover such topics as the value of self expression, turning points and key people, gender and self, race and ethnicity, self in historical context, meaning in our lives, and alternataive views of self.

Although this book ventures outside the realm of photography, its reflections on art and writing will be beneficial to all photographers who want to expand their understanding of how writing and other artistic activities can supplement their therapeutic photography. No doubt, these insights will improve any photography that is a a form of self-expression.


phototherapy and mental health

Phototherapy in Mental Health - David A. Krauss and Jerry L. Fryrear (editors)

As another edited book on phototherapy, this work contains chapters by well-known experts in the field, covering such topics as the history of phototherapy, photographic self-confrontation as therapy, self/environment interactions, the family album as icon, phototherapy with children and adolescents, phototherapy with people who are "different," and a training model for phototherapy. Similar to Loewenthal's text, this book will give you a good feel for how various experts in the field think about phototherapy in the mental health field.


Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche