Personal Development and Photo Therapy
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THE POWER TO SEE: There is an independent process at work in our mind that forms at least part of the foundation upon which perception, cognition, and comprehension are organised.
Each of us has created our own set of filters in which we view the world; our visual constructs of reality. Incorporating photography into counselling sessions helps us to better understand the visual filters you are using. The visual process can be an alternative view in which to seek new strategies and build new thought patterns for success. With the right guidance, perceptions can change and new insights into difficult situations can be found.

Working with photography in a counselling setting has been practiced worldwide for over 40 years, this visual approach to therapy helps open discussions and can aid in reaching subconscious memories. The key to the success of photography in therapy is the experiential process, the process itself is what moves your thoughts and memories forward. By revealing things that are less consciously-evident or verbally accessible we can explore the emotional meaning in the experience which may be “stuck” or causing difficulties.

My personal approach to counselling with photography comes from my early interest in psychology and photography at college. I went on to work as a professional photographer, (and many years later) went back to University to obtain a post-graduate degree in person-centred counselling and a master’s degree in the science of counselling.

Rhonda Gillespie MSc

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Phototherapy from concepts to practices (Editor: Matej Peljhan)

Projection Technique

Use of Photographs as a Medium for Exploring an Individual’s Perception, Values and Expectations

The projection technique of phototherapy includes the active and passive aspects of projecting, decoding and reconstruction of the emotional contents of a photograph, used by the client in constructing the meaning and feelings for which he feels that the certain photography reflects. These aspects enable the technique to be used in viewing one’s own photographs, auto-portraits, as well as the photographs appearing in the different media or taken by other people. They do not have to be photographs of people, but can be photographs of nature, animals and other things that the individual identifies with on a symbolic level.
Every time we step into interaction with a photograph, look at it or talk about it with others, we create its meaning. The meanings we find and the emotions that flow over us when we look at a certain photo- graph are our unique perception and are not necessarily harmonised with what the person who took the photograph wanted to say. The meaning we find in a photograph springs from ourselves, therefore every photograph bears an infinite number of meanings.
Since there is, therefore, no wrong way to interpret a photograph and since every answer is correct, the projection technique is an efficient tool to strengthen us and develop sources of self-awareness and self-esteem. An individual can explore what kind of feelings, memories and thoughts are raised by a certain association. This kind of aware- ness enables him to learn about himself and the aspects we usually disregard or at least do not explore. This gives us the possibility of integration and gaining awareness of these feelings.


Use of a Self-portrait as a Medium for Understanding One’s Own Image

The notion of a self-portrait encompasses any photographic representation of one’s perception of oneself, be it literally or metaphorically. Self-portraits differ from other photographs, for no one else except us influences the creation of a self-portrait. These are representations of ourselves, of our body or of something we believe rep- resents us. In that, we hold control of all the aspects of creating photographs, from the initial idea to the final product. Because these are images of ourselves and because we have created them ourselves, they offer us a lot of possibilities to confront ourselves, which, for a lot of people, constitutes the main goal of therapy.
The use of self-portraits enables an individual to explore his/her image of self, and consequently the process of self-exploration. A self-portrait is a way to symbolise ourselves in a unique and person- ally coded language, as well as a way to see ourselves from the stand point of a beholder. Self-portraits are a representation of our personal symbolic that we are able to visually explore and connect to the perception others hold about us. Despite that, what matters for therapy with a self-portrait is what the person wants to present as a creator, the subject and beholder of a photograph, and how that person wants to present him/her self through the photograph, regardless of how that influences others. By the individuals better knowing themselves, they become more assertive and confident in decision-making and less sensitive to the opinions and expectations of other people. They no longer need other people’s assessments in order to be what they want to be, which makes it easier for them to better explore life.
Self-portraits help to set objectives, achievements, help establish assertiveness, self-respect, etc. they are an important aid to persons who have to realise and accept that they can actually achieve something that they had believed they can do. If they depict something before a camera, something they are usually unable to, they thus create a moment of reality in which they have overcome a certain situation, and that moment actually exists. They are but a step away from actually being able to do it, so for the achievement to actually take place, all that is needed is a slight reframing of perception. In a similar way, therapy can be used with persons who claim not to feel anything and have trouble expressing their emotions, One of the constructive tackles is to ask them to pose in such a way as to present one of their emotions (sadness, anger, joy, etc.).

The Photographs We Are In, but Photographed by Someone Else

Use of Photographs as a Medium for Looking Through Another’s Perspective

Our photographs taken by others give us a chance to see the numerous ways in which the environment sees us. Our opinion of how others see us often differs very much from the truth. Such photographs include shots of our close relations, friends or strangers: the photographs taken by others with a certain purpose of their own. And though we are on those photographs, we are seen through the eyes of someone else and through his perceptive filters. They enable us to explore what is interesting about us for others, what is important to them, and then compare it to what the others are supposed to know about us and what is supposed to interest them. Such photographs offer an insight into the diverse dynamics of our interpersonal relation- ships with people who have taken our photographs and enable us to explore whose ‘photographic truth’ is closest to us and why.
People have different identities, images and gestures that we use depending on the situations, social environment and expectations we face. This public identity often does not allow an insight into who is hiding inside, because people often modify their physical appearance and emotional relationships along with the person we are interacting with. There is no one single truth about who we are, because the photographs we are on can vary very much and none of them are more real than others. They all show a lot of different ‘truths’ of our identity.
The photographs someone else took of us can, in time, become a visual proof of the actual physical changes of the body or the things that surround us. The individuals can see progress or degradation in their looks, health... Through this, they can directly and without interference from other people face the topics of getting old, alcoholism or eating disorders. The positive aspects of such techniques are also the discoveries of desired changes in physical condition brought on by doing sports. The photographs depicting places, times and family or other interpersonal relationships can also be proofs of family history and roots, with the help of which we can explore the unwanted disagreements in our life.

Photographs Created or Collected by the Individual

Use of Photographs as a Medium of Self-exploration Through Metaphors

The photographs we create or collect are a sort of extension of our- selves, personal constructions of reality in their deepest sense, for they reflect our unique personality. They represent our relationship to- wards people, places and objects. They reflect our concept, depict our projections and document our perception. The photographs we create are co-equal to the ones we collect and keep, such as photographs from magazines and calendars, for every one of those is important for us in a way, because we have ascribed meaning to it. Taking photographs can be a conscious decision by the photographer to record a scene, or a much more ‘passive’ act, when a certain scene ‘calls’ for us to photo- graph it. The unconscious factors have a great influence on both ways of us taking photographs, however, they come to light when we do not have to choose whether to take a picture of something. Instead, we do it because the moment seems right to us.
A lot of things can influence an individual’s decision on what he will record: his or her goals, desires and the connection of these elements into visual language that combines all these criteria. The choice of the moment can contain actual as well as emotional information, consistent themes and interests, personal metaphors and symbols, even those that the person was not aware of at the time of pressing the but- ton. The photographs that individuals take or collect become metaphors of themselves and are therefore a strong source of direct exploration of themselves.
Within a therapeutic context, exploring photographs created or collected by the individual is a good way to get to know this person.
Everything that he shares with others about the content of the photo- graph, about the circumstances in which it was taken, or reasons why he had kept it, has a certain meaning for that person. This is one of the reasons why such therapy works: the individual takes his time to share his story with the others in a safe environment, which makes others and him understand that story better.
With the help of creating photographs, individuals in phototherapy can explore and open a number of themes, explore themselves and their hidden self no one knows, visualise the change they want to achieve, modify their way of perceiving the world around them... An individual can depict all these themes through metaphors, which makes him feel safer in disclosing his views, instead of feeling threatened.
From this viewpoint, taking photographs can improve one’s self-image, help people set goals, future desired outcomes, and is at the same time a way to introduce changes into a relationship, explore fantasies and test different forms of communication and the consequences that this brings along. Meanwhile, photography also enables us to over- come generational, race, cultural, sexual and even political differences.

Family Albums and Autobiographic Collections

Use of Photography as a Medium for Exploration of Photographic Collections
The photographs collected in family albums and other biographical photographs are a special field of phototherapy. The technique that includes family photographs has to do with an individual’s self, which is constructed through the individual’s family, his roots, background, surroundings and social environment and patterns, messages and convictions that have been passed on through generations. Because such a technique includes autobiographic photographs and entire al- bums, it enables us to explore an individual’s role within the complex system that has been accompanying him since birth. Family albums build a pattern we can explore through non-verbal expression of family ties, interpersonal dynamics and sources of power.
Family albums are usually meant to provide a timeline, documentation, and are a sort of talisman defying time and proving the existence of an individual and his connection to the other people, important to him. In the family albums, we can also find the so-called posed portraits, but they usually contain shots that depict quickly chosen moments from real life. Since these are photographs and not paintings, the viewer unconsciously ascribes to them the characteristic of actuality that a painted portrait does not contain. We look at photo- graphs from the past as true proof of what life was like in those times, because we forget they reflect family identity, representing what was important for a certain family. Therefore, the photographs without any meaning for the album holder or collector of photographs are sim- ply not there, for he had not included them in the family album.
The photographs collected in the form of an album differ from other collections that someone puts together. An album often looks like a book containing photographs with a life story. Albums are made up of photographs of people, animals, as well as places that were so important as for the people to save photographs of them forever. To have such a collection means that there are people we matter to, people who are our support group and love us.
Contrary to auto-portraits expressing an individual’s individuality and uniqueness, family albums depict connectedness, dependency and differentiation. A family album is a preservation of historic continuity and of photographs of people, but simultaneously a way to keep a family together forever even after the names of some members are long forgotten.

Five Techniques of Phototherapy (Judy Weiser)