Therapeutic photography

Updated: Mar 17



Therapeutic Photography is any self-initiated activity that is also selfconducted and is centered on photography, but includes no formal therapy.

The pursuit of photography as a form of self-help is usually done as a means to gain personal insight, or a better understanding of one’s self.

It could also be used to gain a mastery over a certain element of a person’s life.

Although often started alone, people conducting therapeutic photography sometimes join themed groups or contribute to a project in which others have also contributed to. These groups are not guided by a therapist or other counseling professional but maintained by the individual members. The distinction between people who just do photography and people who knowingly participate in photography as a form of self-therapy may best be described in three stages.


Professor Joel Morgovsky of Brookdale Community College, NJ suggests that the ability of a photographer to express their thoughts and emotions develops through three stages (DynamicS, n.d.).

The first stage, “Innocents”, involves those who periodically take photographs for personal reasons. The next stage of photographers is labeled “Amateurs”. Amateurs are the individuals who analyze and discuss matters relating to photography and photographs. The final stage, where photography is consciously used as a form of creative self-expression is termed “Mature photographers”.

The work done by Jo Spence (Dennett, 2009) is a wonderful example of therapeutic photography.

Techniques taught to Jo Spence by Keith Kennedy, an art and drama teacher at the Henderson Psychiatric Hospital, eventually lead to Spence’s self-initiated photography as a form of self-help after a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1982 (Dennett, 2009).

Jo Spence began taking photographs for her “visual illness diaries”.

She created these albums on a regular basis.



| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |
| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |

| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |
| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |

One of the first techniques that Spence used was “therapeutic staging” where she re-enacted her body’s struggle for survival. She then moved on to using mirrors in her photographs.


This “mirror therapy” is a way to watch your own process of taking photographs of yourself.

Unlike having another person take the photographs, using a mirror allows a person to be uninhibited because a mirror is unable to pass judgment. Finally “scripting”, where an entire photo shoot is imagined and planned out prior to taking the photographs was used during Spence’s therapeutic photography.

Eventually Jo Spence began to work in collaboration with professional therapists but her early work is a strong testament to the positives of therapeutic photography.


Essentially Jo Spence used self-portraiture.

Self-portraiture is a specific aspect of therapeutic photography.

“On your own, you can learn a lot about yourself from self-portraits” (Suler, 2009).

Portraying yourself in different ways can be used as a form of personal expression of who you are, what you’re feeling, even whom you want to be. The understanding of yourself and who you are is knowledge that many cultures and religions strongly value.


Through this form of personal photography a deeper understanding of the self is attainable. Aside from the therapeutic aspect of knowing who you are, the use of self-portraits in therapeutic photography can also help with self-actualization when a self-portrait is used to provide proof that you posses the ability to strive for the possibilities of what you can become; becoming the ultimate you often makes life more heartening.


Often our thoughts and emotions interfere with our awareness; we are living inside our mind opposed to experiencing the life we are actually living.

Through the camera lens people let go of their objective view of the world and begin to experience it, this may be referred to as “mindfulness” (Suler, n.d.e).


Mindfulness in photography becomes therapeutic because it provides a greater awareness of the world, the self, and how they interact.


| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |
| Artist Jo Spence | visual illness diaries | Therapeutic photography | Loredana Denicola's blog | picture taken from the 'Internet' |

Phototherapy is the use of photographs in any form during psychotherapy.

Dr. Hugh Diamond first documented phototherapy in 1856 only twenty years after the invention of photography (Prosser & Cronin, 1998). However, Judy Weiser is perhaps the most well known psychotherapist who has integrated photography into clinical work (Weiser, 1993). Soon after, her work and that of other like-minded psychotherapists such as Dr. David Krauss (Weiser, n.d.) and Dr. John Suler (Suler, n.d.c) began to be published; networks and symposiums were being held both in North America and internationally on the topic of Phototherapy.

Creating, viewing, or sharing photographs within therapy generates a new way to communicate.

While verbal language is still the most common way in which we communicate our inner thoughts and feelings to others and sometimes to ourselves, words are simply representations of reality.

Not all experiences or feelings are capable of being translated and accurately expressed.


In contrast, a photograph is an actual depiction of an experience or feeling that is not suppressed by the perimeters of language. Judy Weiser states that photographs “… have the power to capture and express feelings and ideas in visualsymbolic forms, some of which are intimately personal metaphors.” (Weiser, 1999)

The ability for a photograph to communicate so much is due to the way people typically respond to photographs. When a person looks at a photograph they are taken to that place, at that moment. The interest is often the various meanings or emotions that are projected, sometimes subconsciously onto a photograph by the viewer. Because the viewer is seeing the photograph in real time, any emotions would also be present.

It is this response to a visual “fact” of a moment of time.


by Loredana




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