In 1977, Psychology Today published a short blurb about a growing movement: people who were using photographs to help others. During that decade, consumer cameras became widely accessible and easy to use, and at the same time, psychologists, photography enthusiasts, and more started to explore the potential of taking photographs as a therapeutic tool for helping people of all ages improve their lives.
One of them was the psychoanalyst Dr. Robert Irwin Wolf, then the clinical director of the Henry Street School, a special education junior and senior high school run by the Henry Street Settlement in New York. “We had a wonderful photography teacher, Nancy Starrels, whom I supervised to enable her to work with our challenging students,” he remembers.
“She inspired her students, who had mostly dropped out from regular schools due to learning disabilities, to create photos; they would readily take cameras out into their world and bring back images that we would work with therapeutically.”
The students held exhibitions; one of them had an image selected to be part of the Time-Life Photography book of the year. Most importantly, through capturing their world from their perspective and then sharing it with others, they were able to build confidence and overcome obstacles. Some of them continue to be avid photographers today.
In 1975, the psychologist Judy Weiser became the first to publish an article with the term “PhotoTherapy” in the title. By 1979, she had attended the first-ever International PhotoTherapy Conference, where many of those early pioneers came together to realize that they were not alone in combining their therapy training with a hobby of photo-taking. As she puts it, it was just a matter of time before these techniques emerged and developed, and the ’70s proved fertile ground for new ideas.
Over time, experts say more mental health professionals have started integrating photo-based techniques into their practice. “Currently, I have been asking some clients in my private practice, with whom I work exclusively online due to COVID, to email me photographs that they have taken before a session,” Dr. Wolf tells us. “We then explore the unconscious content of these photos during their online sessions.” On November 21, he will give a one-hour presentation on remote PhotoTherapy as part of The Expressive Therapies Summit New York, taking place virtually.
To better understand the potential of photographic images within a therapeutic context, we spoke with art therapists, therapists, and even a photographer who has been independently using her camera to cope with the COVID pandemic. Read on for insight into how therapists today are using photographs with their clients plus some inspiration for using image-making as a coping skill in your life, whether it’s on your own or with a mental health professional.
Disclaimer: This article does not contain medical advice. It is meant purely for informational purposes. Please consult a qualified professional for medical advice.
Defining the terms
Judy Weiser, Founder and Director of the PhotoTherapy Centre in Vancouver, Canada, has been teaching internationally for decades and currently runs a comprehensive website and Facebook group dedicated to these techniques. Before we start, we had her clarify some common misconceptions about the terms “Therapeutic Photography,” “PhotoTherapy,” and “Photo-Art-Therapy.”
“Therapeutic Photography activities are done by people to help themselves or others in situations where the skills of a trained therapist are not required,” she explains. PhotoTherapy techniques, on the other hand, used by any trained therapist or mental health professional, even those with no training in art therapy. They involve the use of photographs, sometimes created by the client but also found or collected (family snapshots, for instance, can be used in PhotoTherapy).
Finally, Photo-Art-Therapy techniques are a subset of PhotoTherapy techniques that can only be done by art therapists who have had additional education and training in how to successfully adapt PhotoTherapy techniques for use during Art Therapy Sessions.
You can use photo-based helping techniques as a form of self-therapy or do this under the guidance of a qualified therapist or art therapist. If you’d like to learn more about any of these techniques, Weiser has tons of resources available via The PhotoTherapy Centre, so check out her website and, if you’d like, request to join her Facebook group. Her book PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums is now in its third printing (with translations to three other languages) and about to be released as an ebook, and she will soon be releasing a comprehensive package of online courses (you can stay updated here).
It’s not about ‘good art’
Weiser has a signature saying: “This stuff isn’t about the art part of the photo. It’s about the heart part.” She tells us, “This is where it gets touchy for a photography-focused website, where it’s based on whether something is ‘good art.’ In my world, that doesn’t matter. In my world, it’s not about what you photograph–it’s why you photograph it. It’s not what appears visually on the surface of the image; it’s the meaning and feelings and memories triggered by viewing the photo– its emotional content that gets evoked as you view or remember it.”
For that reason, in her work, she’ll often ask people why they took one photo instead of another, what they might want to title it, what it might say if it could speak, etc. Creating the photograph isn’t the end goal; it’s a beginning point for further exploration. You don’t have to have any experience in photography to use these techniques; you can use personal snapshots or any other photographic media of your choice. You might not even know yet why you photograph what you photograph; that could come later, upon reflection.
The New York-based Creative Arts Therapist Melissa Kay Cohen puts it this way: “Nothing is ever forced in Art Therapy, not in the use of materials or in conversation. Art Therapy is about the process, not the product. In image-making with photographs, at times I like to have my clients lay out all their photos and edit them. We discuss light, shape, contrast, composition, subject matter, and exposure, but we don’t focus and discuss in technical terms. Instead, we relate the images to what is going on personally, both challenges and joy. We explore the self through photography and images.”
The unique potential of photography
When Kristen Shortell, an art therapist at Paint the Stars Art Therapy, LLC, was accepted into graduate programs early in her career, almost all of them encouraged her to refocus her attention from photography and back onto more traditional media. Still, she stayed the course. “I feel very strongly that art therapists should use photography more, and I think it’s incredibly valuable.”
One of the reasons, Shortell says, is the medium’s accessibility. “Photography is possibly the most far-reaching art form in today’s world,” she tells us. “Anyone with a phone can take a photo. They may not have the art history background, or the technical skills in a darkroom, or even understand the basics of aperture and shutter speed, but I’m seeing more and more children as young as two years old beginning to use smartphones and tablets.
“It can be really difficult to do much of anything when you’re severely depressed–paint, draw, build–but a camera only takes a little energy to use and you have an instant product that can be shared and reflected upon and explored by an individual, a group, or a clinician depending on its purpose.
“I’ve worked with children with severe medical needs, some of whom could barely move or speak, but we had a special camera that was modified to their needs, allowing them to press a large button after aiming the camera attached to their wheelchairs. They were able to share their perspective and experience in a way that hadn’t been possible before, and it was, quite frankly, fantastic.
“I’ve also seen it used in a geriatric population to help with memory care. And I’ve used it with teenagers with behavioral issues and trauma histories. It can promote empathy in groups–literally allowing others to see from another person’s point of view. It makes no mess, can be edited an infinite amount of times, and is easily saved for later reference and exploration. The possibilities are endless.”
Stories, insights, & tips for getting started
The following tips come from firsthand experiences among the licensed art therapists we interviewed. While most of these experts refer to their professional experiences with clients, we also hope they will serve as inspiration, as many of these activities can be adapted for people using Therapeutic Photography techniques to help themselves improve their wellbeing. Not every suggestion or technique will suit everyone, so feel free to explore those that resonate with you.
“While you can explore these tips to explore your own life, it’s important to keep in mind that there is always the chance that doing this might evoke a surprisingly strong memory or feeling inside you,” Weiser says. “If you find that happening, you might want to explore this further in conversation with a professional therapist.”
Try a mindfulness exercise.
Emily Davenport, the Founder and Director of Davenport Creative Arts Therapy, shared a few exercises with us, and while it’s often best to do them with a professional, you can also try them on your own, including this exercise in mindfulness. “I’ve found it to be helpful to ask clients to take photographs of subjects/objects that bring up certain emotions,” she tells us.
“This involves asking the clients to practice intentionally and mindfully connecting inward while looking at everyday objects. Noticing their own emotional reactions is an important element of change, as we can’t change what we’re not aware of. In this way, it’s also an exercise in slowing down, mindfully looking, and connecting to our internal world.
“After taking a few photographs, it can be helpful to engage in a short journaling exercise about what the photograph(s) brought up for them. I ask clients to use non-judgmental language when processing their photographs such as, ‘I’m noticing these colors are bringing up a feeling of joy and relaxation for me right now.’ They can also express what the process of capturing the photograph was like.”
Whether you’re working with a pro or on your own, go slowly. “Follow your gut and listen to what feels good for you,” Davenport advises. “Sometimes, having a time-limit can be helpful too. “I think what makes photography therapeutic is being able to connect with your art-making and yourself on a deeper level. Hence, creating small practices or rituals such as meditating, journaling (or other forms of mindfully connecting) may be a helpful tool before or after you start photographing.”
Document a day in your life.
“There are so many specific photography-related exercises out there, but one that I sometimes do with my clients is asking them to tell the story of a-day-in-the-life of yourself,” says Dr. Rachel Brandoff, an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Art Therapy Specialization in the Community & Trauma Counseling Program at Thomas Jefferson University. “Tell the story of an event or episode in your life through a series of photos. Consider the number of photos that are necessary to tell that story of something you experienced or witnessed.”
To clarify, you can try this exercise or others mentioned here on your own, but unless you are doing them with an art therapist, they would not be considered art therapy. “Art therapy happens when a client is working with an art therapist–a trained mental health professional,” she stresses.
“This does not mean engaging in art-making and reflective practice on one’s own cannot be beneficial and provide greater insight and increased awareness. It is important that if a person who is not a therapist is using a therapeutic technique that they only use it personally and not with another person.”
Challenge yourself to take a photo a day.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the photographer and photo mentor Karin van Mierlo, along with her group and website Photography Playground, has been doing photo-a-day challenges, and she says these activities have helped her cope with stress during difficult periods throughout her life.
“Two and a half years ago, I received a call from my brother-in-law that my sister was in the hospital,” she remembers. “We knew this would happen, as she was diagnosed with several terminal brain tumors seven months before. I rushed to the airport to be with her and her loved ones. At the airport, while waiting in line to board the plane, I took my first photo.
“Knowing that my life would be completely dedicated to caring for my sister and others, I made a promise to myself right then and there. To make at least one photo every day. I left in such a hurry I did not bring my camera. All I had was my iPhone. But that didn’t stop me.
“Some days, it would be just the one photo, and other days, I made a lot more. Some photos are interesting or compelling or ‘good,’ and some are not. It was not about making ‘good’ photos with a professional camera. It was about me navigating through a heartbreaking time in my life.
“I knew going in, in order to cope, I needed those little moments of being focused on something that was uniquely me. To make. No matter the tools, no matter the outcome. Looking back, I’m sure that it helped me to stay connected to a vital part of me. And that helped me to care for others. This string of photos is one of the most precious possessions I have. But apart from a few, I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. I did it for me.”
For experienced photographers, one challenge with therapeutic photography techniques can be letting go of expectations. One way to do that is through experimenting and trying new things. “Do not get caught up in learning a ‘skill’ or doing it ‘right,’” Dr. Erin Partridge of Wings To Fly Art Therapy Studio in California urges. “Instead, focus on what you feel curious about or are interested in exploring.
“When I was working with a teenage client who was experiencing extreme anxiety and depression, we used macro and fisheye lenses on a smartphone to take experimental digital images. The process encouraged her to slow down, look at small details, and see the world around her in a different way.”
You don’t need a top-of-the-line DSLR; your phone or even a toy camera can be used for this kind of work. Swap out your regular gear for something else, or photograph a brand-new subject. Dr. Partridge says, “I also love playing with all sorts of different cameras–old polaroids, digital cameras, instant photo printers, weird lenses, etc.”
“Photo walks in nature can be a type of Therapeutic Photography,” Weiser explains. “First of all, when you decide to go out on a walk, you’ve already changed your behavior (e.g. you’re too depressed to move or too anxious to go out). You then go out with a focus to do something that’s positive–you have a goal in mind–and when you’re doing it, you feel good, often because you’re out in nature. For those moments, you’re actively engaged, and your mind is no longer on the problem.”
Respond to a prompt.*
Weiser’s website is a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas, including this page illuminating one of the techniques she uses with clients. Here, you’ll find some prompts or assignments you can do with yourself or a therapist, like “Go take photos you’d like to leave as a visual legacy for your grandchildren” or “Take or find photos that show things you can’t explain in words.”
*Please note this important disclaimer from Weiser: “These sample questions are provided only to illustrate the kinds that trained therapists might ask clients when using this technique during their therapy session. You are welcome to try them out using your own personal photos, but unless you are professionally trained in conducting therapy, please do not try to use them with other people, as the results could be harmful.”
While some of these tips center around specific exercises or prompts, it can also help to start from a place of openness, without any fixed intentions.
“I work in a day treatment facility (ages 5-21) with those with mental health issues, development delays, trauma and behavioral concerns,” Michelle Belanger, a Creative Arts Therapist in Brooklyn, tells us. “Due to some needs with processing, cognition, and other perhaps physical or emotional limitations, I would prompt students to think more abstractly as opposed to a set directive or something concrete.
“For instance, I’d ask them to explore within our school yard and take images of a certain color, shape, something that felt interesting or meaningful to them. It’s nice then to come together and not compare but take notice of our subject choices and share why or what they may mean to us.
“I am a big fan of intuitive art/photography, abstract work, and not having a set intention. I like to be more organic and work within my internal world, as well as what is within my home or community. With that said, I know intention setting is helpful for some, and some prefer to focus on an issue or something they would like to work through while taking pictures.”
Visualize your emotions.
Dr. Brandoff has also had clients document their emotions and explore them symbolically. “I had one client who used photography on her own as a way of documenting her emotions and emotional process,” she tells us.
“She would smash dishes in her kitchen, and then photograph the shards– sometimes wherever they fell, and sometimes in a more composed manner. In this way, the photograph took on enormous meaning because it held the emotions that she had difficulty tolerating. It was also a way that this client could turn destructive impulses into something constructive and even beautiful.”
“I am often inspired by the way clients turn their cameras on themselves,” Dr. Brandoff tells us. “For some people, ‘selfies’ are a normal part of their personal documentation and expression, but many people still have great difficulty in photographing themselves. I will sometimes ask clients to take a self-portrait that reveals something about them but is not of their face. I’m continually impressed with the ways that this directive is interpreted.”
Organize a mini photo shoot.
Deborah Adler, a Licensed Art Therapist in New York, incorporates portraits into her practice as well. “I’ve created mini photo shoots with clients and incorporated the imagery into self-expressive collages,” she says. “I’ve often used this technique with children struggling with self-esteem, confidence, and emotional regulation issues. I will provide a wide range of props, such as hats, glasses, boas, microphones, necklaces, dolls, etc. that can be worn or incorporated in some creative manner.
“He or she has the freedom to pose, either sitting or standing, in whatever place in the room. This creative experience allows clients opportunities for letting go and becoming whoever he or she wants to be. It gives them the safe space to express whatever they are going through at that given time.
“The client is in control of how they want to use their body and what facial expression they want to convey, and they have the witness of a Therapist to be present in this enactment. Whether it’s expressing wishes, fears, sadness, anger, joy, or trauma, posing for a photo or creating a metaphoric character can elicit many deep emotions.
“After the ‘photo shoot,’ prints of the clients are made for the following session for them to create an expressive collage. He or she can incorporate other media into the collage, such as drawing materials and words to further express themselves. This process offers the opportunity to self-reflect and have an honest dialogue about his or her feelings and emotions.”
Doing these kinds of activities with a mental health professional can deepen the experience and help you get the most out of it, while in a safe environment, but for those interested in expressing themselves in this way, Adler’s idea could potentially be adapted into a mini self-portrait shoot (using a remote shutter release, for instance), with props and poses of your choosing.
While you can try it yourself, keep in mind that these exercises should never be attempted with anyone else, unless you are a licensed therapist or art therapist. “Incorporating personal photographs and especially client self-images can bring up a lot of emotion, insecurities, and trauma,” Adler says. “It is important that one has the appropriate training and license to work on such delicate imagery and raw emotion that come up in the therapy session.”
Play with collage.
Collage is one technique the experts we spoke to brought up time and again. “I find that cutting figures (either self or others) out of the photograph and putting them into a new context really enables a conversation about how we can do that in our own lives,” Dr. Partridge says. “We are not as stuck as we may feel sometimes. We can recontextualize ourselves.”
Adler has also used collage in her work. “One of my first experiences utilizing photographic images was with an elderly woman who suffered from a stroke and was bound to a wheelchair,” she remembers. “This woman was once a successful artist, who was agile, spirited, and very connected to her family. But with the passing of her husband, having a stroke and rheumatoid arthritis, she had restrictions in her way that left her physically limited, sad, and longing for family connection.
“The first project we worked on was creating a series of photo collages that honored and displayed all her loved ones in her life. Actual photos of her family members, as well as photocopied ones, were all used to create eye-catching collages. Words that described each family member, clip art, and colorful paper were all incorporated with the photographs for each collage page.
“Each of the pages was set in a clear protective covering and placed in a photo flip album stand. The client was extremely motivated, energized, and pleased as she worked on each one of these special dedicated pages to the ones she loved. It gave her a sense of purpose and control, as well as a reflection of her life and all the positive memories she had for them.”
Like collage, mixed media can be another avenue to explore. “Using a photocopied or printed photograph of yourself (if not the real thing), you can ‘color’ the photo to reflect the thoughts and feelings that are unseen in the picture,” Dr. Brandoff explains.
“Or, using a photocopied photograph of themselves, I sometimes have clients color, draw, or in some way identify a change that has been made in them (or has happened to them) in the past, and a change that they want to make in the future. This explores our personal changes over time, as we will not always look or feel the way we do now.”
“Alternatively, you could center a photograph of yourself on a larger piece of paper. On the paper surrounding the photograph, draw, write, or indicate aspects of yourself (visible or invisible) which you might attribute to other people (genes, experience) or events. (i.e. I have my mother’s eyebrows, my father’s nose, a light in my eye that’s my own imagination, that scar near my lip where I fell 19 years ago, etc.). These types of exercises can be eye-opening, and can serve as a catalyst for insight and realization in treatment.”
Create a book or box.
“One of my clients, an older adult, brought in photographs of her travels to incorporate into an altered book,” Dr. Partridge tells us. “It was a way for her to assert her worldliness, to remind us that she hadn’t always lived in assisted living–that her world was very large and expansive. It also prompted reflection on what she learned and experienced from her travels and engaged her in a reflective reminiscence.”
Boxes or other types of photo displays can also work. “Photographs can be used as a way to process grief, to memorialize certain people, places, or animals that someone has lost,” Davenport says. “You can make a ‘grief box’ and use photographs to either create a box or a frame that represents a comforting memory.
“Or, the photograph can be a stand-alone way to memorialize and help process emotions surrounding grief and loss. Sometimes, instead of speaking about how a client is feeling in the wake of a loss, a client can literally show me how they are feeling–which is incredibly powerful.”
For many, keeping images and even displaying them in some way can become an important part of the process. “A lot of in-patient and group therapy settings limit the use of cameras, due to HIPPA privacy laws, but, when I’ve been able to use it, I’ve seen people make books or albums to bring home with them, creating a keepsake to remember the positives and negatives of treatment–the growth that took place,” Shortell says.
“I’ve seen people fill their walls with images that symbolize happiness and love and freedom. Mostly, people using photographs in this way express feeling as if they finally have a voice, and that they’re being heard, even when there are no words.”
Finding a professional
“The best training comes from self experience, so I would recommend finding someone trained to work therapeutically with photography to work with for your own personal growth,” Dr. Wolf suggests. This tip was mentioned again and again by a few of the experts we interviewed; depending on your needs, you might find an art therapist (ATR or ATR-BC, LCAT credentials) or a therapist who has experience in PhotoTherapy techniques to guide you through the process.
“Working with a therapist can help people reflect in different ways than they might on their own,” Shortell explains. “Anyone who tries these exercises on their own and maybe doesn’t find much as a result shouldn’t discard the idea altogether. I would hate for someone to think, ‘I did this on my own and it didn’t help, so I’m not going to try it again with someone.’ Doing anything on our own isn’t the same as doing something with a professional.”
While people can and do use Therapeutic Photography techniques by themselves or in groups, a qualified therapist can create a safe environment for exploring these techniques more fully while also avoiding potential triggers. Of course, if at any point, you find that mental health issues are disrupting or affecting your life, the first step should be to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
“The use of photography as a therapeutic tool (as with any art material or therapeutic tool) can be delicate, and sometimes, what is revealed is unsettling,” Dr. Brandoff explains. “This is a good reason why it can benefit people to engage in therapeutic work in the context of therapy with a trained professional.
“A therapist can help hold the space, create a safe container, guide the process, and help a client to close a session of inquiry in a way that will not leave a person emotionally open and raw as they resume typical life activities. Sometimes, when we start working on things, processing life events and even trauma, considering our own personal growth– it can feel great. But it can also feel challenging and difficult and it is not a linear process. Going down this road with a guide help a person stay the course when the journey becomes challenging.”
Davenport has some affordable recommendations for getting started. “Through a site such as Open Path Therapy Collective, people can find affordable, licensed therapists nationwide (including Art Therapists). Some practices (like mine) offer very affordable therapy with therapists-in-training; right now, we offer a sliding scale with our graduate-level intern.”
Therapeutic Photography communities
Many people participate in therapeutic activities individually and without a group, and for some, that’s ideal, especially if you can benefit from time alone or feel uncomfortable sharing this part of your life with others. But even if you choose not to work with a mental health professional, you can still seek out a community or self-help group for support and encouragement as you explore these activities, if you wish, at any point in time.
“Sometimes, there are groups that do ‘photo activity’ days once each week,” Weiser says. “It’s a shared experience–like group therapy but with no therapist. If five people are going out on these walks, and they’re talking as they do it, and sharing about their thoughts and feelings as they do this, you bet they’re improving their mental health.”
You can also join or create your own local group. “I know of one in England, run by Ruth Davey, who is not a therapist, that goes out together on a regular basis,” Weiser explains. “They meet at a particular place, and then they go out exploring together, photographing what catches their attention. The group decides the theme. They’re not only taking photos, but they’re chatting with each other too. They’re having normal conversations, which can be helpful if they’re very isolated emotionally.”
If you’re looking for a community to join, Weiser recommends Look Again, Ruth Davey’s Mindful Photography group in England. The One Project, a platform created by Bryce Evans after he used Therapeutic Photography activities to cope with his own depression and anxiety, also has photowalk meetups, guides, resources, and more.
“This is a very challenging and stressful time for everyone,” Cohen admits. “I think it’s nice to always have a reminder that it’s okay to take a few minutes for yourself and take notice of what comes to you with no intent in mind. That you can always find inspiration and purpose by using your inner wisdom.
“When making images, look at what doesn’t fit for you and why. Explore the place, theme, subject and your connection. Try not to listen to the inner critic, that deep dialog we all have at times with ourselves about what is right or good, who will like this, but focus on your feelings and the process. It’s important to honor and acknowledge this inner critic: ‘I see, I hear.’ But remember it is about the process. Art making and photography is for oneself. Follow and accept the process and feelings that come up, while practicing self-care and self-love.”
Read this next: The Many Uses of Images in Photography Therapy