Photographer as therapist, camera as clinician, and photography as therapy
Therapeutic photography can be a useful tool in helping heal a distored self-image. In 2009, the New York Times published an article on this emerging practice of using images as a healing modality. The story, titled "Behind the Scenes: A Camera as Therapy", was written by professional photojournalist Alexandra Avakian. Since Avakian's article, other photographers have also written of similar experiences using the lense to heal the psyche while capturing the physical appearance of a subject. San Francisco-based photographer Katrina Davenport explores this photographic phenomenon as a therapeutic method in the following Q&A.
How do you see photography as a tool for healing people who struggle with body image or a distorted sense of their appearance?
Many times professional photographers can take compelling pictures of people that help them see their true beauty. Every single person is beautiful, and the right photographer can highlight that. In addition, people can learn simple techniques to help them take pictures of themselves that they will like. Photography can be an excellent tool to add to people's healing strategy.
Apart from a clinical diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, how come photographs can look dramatically good or bad without anything "wrong" with a person's appearance?
Technically speaking, photographs can look dramatically good or bad because of lighting and angles. If the light is not good, either too dark or two harsh, it can distort how someone looks. And if the photo is taken from a strange angle, it can distort facial and body features. In addition, photographs are often enhanced: either people wear make-up or clothes that flatter them, or they ask the photographer to touch-up the photographs in Photoshop afterward. Most professional photographs have some kind of enhancement going on. And people must realize that most photographs online and in magazines these days are Photoshopped, sometimes heavily.
What ways can photography be used in conjunction with recovery and therapy for people who are unable to look or accept their appearance?
I think self-portraits can be hugely beneficial. Doing an exercise like taking a daily photograph for three months, or challenging yourself to take pictures that are more than just head shots, can be healing. Especially if you put on fun hats, go to interesting locations, and get creative. Many times I'm not happy with photos other take of me, but once I learned how to take flattering self-portraits, I realized that I am actually photogenic! These kinds of exercises are about more than surface beauty...they are about creative a positive relationship with yourself.
Describe the top lighting and posing tips that can help someone take the best photographs of themselves or friends who suffer from poor self image with no basis in fact?
Don't take pictures in mid-day sun if possible. This creates harsh angles. Best times of day are within a few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset, which photographers call the magic hour. The sun is at a very favorable angle and this gives a warmth and glow to photographs. Open shade, like the shade under a tree, can also be good as long as it isn't too dark. Photographs taken indoors under fluorescent lights often look less flattering than natural light. The other tip I have is to use a tripod and a timer. Most cameras have a built-in timer...it can be fun learning how to pose before the timer goes off. And a tripod can help you get a good angle rather than trying to hold your arm out and take a good photograph.
Do you see photography as an extension of art therapy? How?
Yes. I think photography is a very accessible way for people to be artists. It takes time and practice, but almost anyone can take a good photograph. You don't have to know how to draw or paint and with digital photography, the results are instant. Plus, you can delete the images you don't like.
What ways would you combined nature as a healing tool in conjunction with photography to foster healing for a client?
Photographs taken in nature are always better than those done inside. Natural light is the most flattering light there is. It doesn't require someone to wear a lot of make-up and it adds instant beauty to the photograph. There are an infinite number of backdrops possible in nature. And, to take it further, establishing a relationship with a place, and then taking photographs there, can create really beautiful images because the photographs will capture that relationship.
Why is it that photographs can be so powerful? Especially for a person viewing their own image?
Photographs allow us to be seen. They have a way of capturing our essence.
Tell me how you began your training and career as a photographer? Had you always wanted to pursue photography as an avocation?
I'm a self-taught photographer. I've loved photography from a young age...my father is a hobby photographer and gave me my first camera when I was young. The first pictures I have are of a trip to the mountains in Colorado when I was 11. In 2004 I started getting more serious about photography and I went around my neighborhood in Denver photographing flowers. That year I visited Hawaii and when I saw the images I was able to take of plants and flowers there, I knew I was on to something. Since then I've been in art shows, I do photo shoots locally, and I've published my photos as well: one of my photographs is on the cover of a book.
Where do you see your practice as a coach evolving to include photography as a trans-formative medium?
I've take people into nature for meditative photography. We meditate, connect with the place, and then attempt to interact with the spirit of the place though photography with some amazing results. I've also done photography walks with people. I'd like to do more of this.
Do you see yourself as a pioneer in therapeutic photography? If so, how?
I don't know that I'm a pioneer. But I do think there is a lot of potential for photography to be used in a therapeutic manner.