This article was originally published on March 30, 2022
For the past few years, I had the great privilege to study photography at Institut tvůrčí fotografie, a university based in the Czech Republic. While being a student there, you are highly encouraged to focus on documentary photography and long-term work. This is also why, I met many students who took this opportunity and decided to dedicate long-term projects to talk about their painful personal experiences.
From the very beginning, I was amazed by this phenomenon, situated somewhere on the edge of art and psychology. I gazed carefully at human courage to share the most difficult fragments of their biography. In the same way I observed with a great interest the ability to communicate it through the photos with a wider audience. Finally, I decided to take a deeper look into the therapeutic aspect of photography as a topic of my final thesis.
Consequently, I was wondering if the creative process changes something in people. If so – what does it change? Can it emotionally regulate a person and release the pain?
In this article, I would like to give you a short glimpse of the theoretical part of my research.
I started my work by defining what the art-therapy is. According to The British Association of art therapists:
Later, I had a deeper look into the history of photography and looked for photographers who potentially saw the medium of photography as a way of getting closer to themselves.
Self-portrait as an act of introspection or distance
A self-portrait is a common form of self-expression. Just because taking a photo of ourselves can be a possibility to look deeper into our situation.
Vivian Maier, the world-known photographer, shot a great collection of self-portraits. In her photography, she often uses shadows as the main part of the composition. They can be interpreted symbolically, as an invitation to look into oneself more with greater insight.
On the other hand, working with self-portraits can be treated as a self-expressive therapy. We can find such an approach in Helmut Newton’s photography. He used self-portraits to document the period of being hospitalized while he was treated for cancer. As a result, it seems that his cold snap-shots created a physical and mental barrier between himself and his difficult situation. In fact, by standing behind the camera, he could confront his situation less emotionally.
Honesty is a step forward
The introspective function of the self-portrait assumes one important condition: the expression must be honest!
Nan Goldin was one of the greatest pioneers revealing the details of her biography throughout her work. She documented her personal life and the life of her friends in a very straightforward way. She said once:
This was her life motto and an inspiration for future generations. Nan Goldin believed that by being sincere in photography, an artist creates the possibility for himself and for the audience to meet the truth. This can be a potential step forward towards acceptance of life circumstances.
Working with an archive photography
In addition, another way of getting to know and understand oneself is by working with the archives. Chino-Otsuka with her amazing artwork called “Imagine finding me” took us on a fascinating journey where her past meets the future. She used her photos taken during her childhood holidays and digitally added her current image as an adult woman. Thanks to this, she created a double-portrait where the little girl Chino meets herself as an adult. She made an interesting visual and mental journey to her past and her memories. In fact, through this journey, she might have reflected on her identity as a Japanese artist living in the UK and took a deeper look at her life as a whole process.
The given examples create just a short glimpse of how one can work with the camera on a personal level. Indeed, photos can play a very interesting role in human psychology. They can be the source of information, make us closer to ourselves, or on the contrary, create a distance.