What are the differences between therapeutic photography and phototherapy?

therapeutic photographyRecently while surfing the Internet I’ve noticed that the word “phototherapy” is often used in wrong ways, and I must confess that this makes me a little upset. That’s the reason why today I’ve decided to write an article that makes clear the difference between therapeutic photography and phototherapy.

I’ve already explained to you the enormous power photos have, whether as a means to express what one can’t say in words or as a means to stimulate non-conscious behaviors and feelings. I won’t write a lot here, but in case you need to refresh your memory, then you find a well explanatory article here.

Let’s take a step further then.

The dawn of the therapeutic aspect of photography

The first person to test and to understand the therapeutic aspect of photography was Dr. Hugh Diamond (1856), a psychiatrist in the  Surrey County Lunatic Asylum female prison and amateur photographer. He took pictures of his patients before and after treatments, in order to spot the change of their faces’ physiology. There’s nothing truly interesting until this point, except for the fact that he has preceded the famous Cesare Lombroso, who was known for applying physiognomy to criminals ( just like The Mentalist of our times, to say so ). The thing became really interesting when Dr. Diamond (later called as the father of psychiatric photography) started showing his patients the portraits he made of them, obtaining positive reactions when the women saw themselves again in photos. It’s very known the example of a patient who believed herself to be the Queen of England until she saw herself in a picture and laughed, and she stopped considering herself so. The pictures for these patients became an instrument to intensify the awareness they had of their body image, identity and self-esteem. (If you want to know more, simply google Dr. Hugh Diamond and a whole new world will open to you).

But just like every genius that doesn’t fit his time, Dr. Diamond received no attention; only in the 70s the therapeutic power of photography will be recognized, thanks to Judy Weiser‘s article on “Photo-therapy” (1975) which mustn’t be confused with light’s therapy. This Canadian psychotherapist and photographer employed photos as a projective instrument during her appointments with patients, because she noticed that pictures stimulated feelings and memories which were hard to extrapolate through words.
Later on, she started using the patients’ family albums in order to provoke reflections, connections and emotional behaviors in them; they were pictures portraiting the patients themselves or pictures that were taken directly by them under Judy’s request: those were used as the starting point for the therapeutic process.

The Photo-therapy

Thanks to Judy Weiser’s article we have an official definition (then recognized by the scientific community) that identifies Photo-Therapy as the use of photography during the psychotherapeutic process as a mean to explore oneself, to express non-verbal communication, especially with those patients who find it hard to express their emotional part, which is strictly related to past memories they’re not aware of.

In case it isn’t clear, Photo-Therapy is a therapeutic practice employed by specialized professionals such as psychologist psychotherapists who were educated to such techniques. Beware from portrait photographers talking about Photo-Therapy.

Therapeutic Photography

But we’re not finished yet, we still have to give a definition of what Therapeutic Photography is: it’s a large field where photographic techniques are not used in a therapeutic process (in absence of a professional psychotherapist, then); they’re used to enlarge oneself’s knowledge and awareness, to solve out little non-pathological conflicts by activating a positive change or improving interpersonal relationships.

Anna Fabroni’s photographic output named “Costole” (meaning “Ribs”, 2004) is an example of therapeutic photography. Anna is a former model who, thanks to photography, has overcome anorexia and was able to build a new identity.

therapeutic photography
A.Fabroni, Costole, 2001-2004

Here’s shortly her story and project: everything started when, after meeting a photographer named Francesco Morgillo where Anna was the model, he pushed her to use the camera to take photos of herself. These are Anna’s direct words describing that moment: “I used the camera as it was a piece of feminine search and the result was surprising. I felt prettier, I felt as I didn’t have the need to worry about the other people’s thoughts, as I could finally portrait myself as I wanted and not like the others wanted me to be or as they represented me in fashion“. Anna explains in an interview that “I was astonished after seeing the results and my real body, maybe I could have gained more weight again?“.

From that moment on, Anna never left her camera, because through it she was able to see herself from the outside, she was able to be more tolerant to such a fragile woman filled with flaws, who only deserved to be loved after all. Thanks to photography she managed to spot those feelings that her body expressed with photos but worked as a filter while watching in the mirror. The project “Costole” has been a way to mend her insecurities and about this Anna writes: ” I recovered from anorexia, in some way I began to eat again, because in the photos pictured in “Costole” I saw my own bones, while I only saw fat while watching myself in the mirror. If it only worked to correct my eyes’ distortions, this would make portraits a fundamental form of autotherapy.”

I know, prolixity isn’t a gift I have! I hope for everyone that got until here that this article was helpful enough to make things clearer. If you wish to know more, Google is an unlimited source of information and bibliographies, but in case you want to share reflections or comments, I’d be happy to discuss them with you.

Thanks for still being here!