How To Use Photography As Emotional Therapy

When I tell you I've been excited for this post, I mean it. This is something I'm so, so passionate about. Using art and photography for therapy for yourself is something that, obviously, isn't new. But, with everything going on in the world, I think now more than ever we're in desperate need of a way to get out our emotions in a way where we feel a release.


When you use photography as therapy, it not only helps with the release aspect, but there's a special added element that comes from being able to look at it in front of you. Maybe it turns out to just be a picture of a clock, or two glasses sitting next to each other. It doesn't matter how others view it, it matters how you took your emotions and put them into a photo. It matters how you see it.


Of course, there's a ton of different options of how to release your emotions. This one is just my personal favorite. Plus, I have some skin in this game so I feel like I can talk about it much more appropriately!


So. Away we go.


HOW DO YOU START?


Where do we start when we want to walk down this avenue of using photography as therapy? A story. Break that down a little bit, and all a story is, is an idea. For this idea, the easiest place to start is an emotion.

This photo (left) was taken during a time when I felt trapped. It's easy to see that after I've just expressed it, but think about what it could also mean. It could be just a creepy photo. It could be about a ghost. It could be about hiding. This is what I mean when I say it doesn't matter how others see it. Art is art, and art is always up for interpretation.


So. This idea started with a simple emotion: feeling trapped.


The next step is deciding how you want to portray that emotion. For this photo, I wanted to portray it by using myself as the subject since it was such a deeply personal emotion (I had no other models either, but that's besides the point). So, okay, great, I want to use myself as the subject. How do you come up with the way you want to portray the emotion?


CREATIVE THINKING.

Ask yourself: what does that look like?


Everyone is creative. I will argue this, so don't try me.


Lets take a different emotion. This time we'll talk about fear. What do YOU think of when you think about fear? Since it's another emotion that is so personal, this will be different for everyone! How does fear make you feel? For me, it feels paralyzing. It makes me feel as if I can't move forward or backward. To build off of that, I'd ask my self what does that look like?


Lets do another! A happy one this time! Love. Love makes me feel like my chest is going to explode. It makes me feel like I'm somewhere new. Break that down even more. What does a new place look like to me? Or even, what colors do you associate with it?


After you've gone through and decided on what you're going to base your photos off of, the next thing to consider is arguably the most important.


WHAT WILL YOUR SUBJECT BE?


Subjects are the main focus of your photography. It's the star of the show. What will you choose to be the visual storyteller for your photo?


I, of course, am biased towards self portraiture. And in this context with using photography as therapy, it can be hugely beneficial to see yourself as the subject of your emotion. Kind of like if you journal, and you really just lay it all out there on the paper. You can read it back and you know those are your words, and now, they're not just in your head. You can see it out in front of you. I feel the same way with seeing your own self in photos.

These photos (above), new and old, are all deeply personal. In some, my face is visible, in others, it could be a completely different person for all you know by looking at the photos. Self portraiture doesn't have to be obviously self portraiture. The therapeutic aspect of it comes from your own knowing that, that is you. No one else has to know if you don't want them to.


What about not doing portraiture at all?


Totally fine! There's millions of ways to tell stories without people being a part of it at all. This is still just a process of breaking down the emotion, idea, or story, that you want to work with until you find something to symbolize or physically represent that thing. Some of my favorites:


  1. Flowers. They can portray life, death, fragility, being delicate. Of course also their color and shapes and what they represent to you personally.

  2. String. This can show connectivity or being restricted.

  3. Water. Something can be drowning, or being sprinkled upon. It can represent overwhelm, or cleansing.

  4. Mirrors. Mirrors are amazing. Your photo could be totally dark, and the mirror could be pointing towards something light and colorful. Mirrors have ridiculous amounts of option and potential.

  5. Glass. Broken glass, glass that's reflecting something, glass that's painted on.

  6. A chair. An empty chair says a lot! Or maybe it's filled with something else. Or maybe light is hitting it.

  7. Skin. Skin is beautiful. It shows vulnerability. It can also help a photo look clean. Sometimes it's just easier to not have to worry about wardrobe in a photo. It can also be used to be sensual!

  8. Paper. Tear it! Shred it! BURN IT! Burning paper is one of my favorite things to do in photographs, but it might just be because I love fire. Do it at your own risk.


These are all things that are easy to find, and likely in your own house! They can be used for any kind of symbolism that you deem fit. They are also so beautifully interchangeable, and can work with each other. Also, they can work with self portraiture too! Having a body in a photo is one thing, but adding the meat in with some different characters for symbolism helps build the story even more.


Now, when I think about therapy, I think about a safe space where you can let it all out. This is the same with photography, and using it for the same purpose. The wonderful thing about art is, like I said, it's all up for interpretation. Some pieces might be more obvious than others, but maybe it's just obvious to you.


Take solace in the fact that what you make, it's like you're telling it a secret. It just has to sit there and be what it is, but both of you know what you meant for it to be.


HOW PERSONAL IS TOO PERSONAL?


I think the better question would be, how obvious do you want to make it?


This photo is an example of making it very obvious.


This is a photo of my boyfriend and I. It was inspired by talking to my friend one night about reincarnation, and how I wondered if soulmates would meet in every different cycle of reincarnation. The thought of how lucky I would be to get to fall in love with Jason over and over again, it spawned this photo. The symbolism is in the red string, which symbolizes the red string of fate. The red string of fate is thought to be a string that ties soulmates together, so that way they eventually find one another. I thought that, that fit perfectly for what I was trying to portray with this photo.

This photo is an example of subtlety. It was inspired by a quote from Mary Oliver, from her poem Starlings in Winter.

"I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings."

When I read this years ago, it struck me. I was going through a time in my life where I so badly did not want to forget the power I had. As a person, and as an artist. In this photo, the subject is standing strong against the waves. If you look close enough, she even has a hint of a smile. She isn't scared.


But, one time, someone also described this photo to me as it being and feeling lyrical. That was one of the biggest compliments I had ever received. It wasn't anything like what I had in my head, and that meant that it meant something different to someone else. What an incredible thing.


WHAT NOW?

Well... at risk of sounding bossy, go do it.


Art and life do not wait for us. Ideas do not wait for us. Time certainly does not wait for us. There will never be a perfect time or a perfect idea. In order to harness your own creativity, and more importantly, in order to understand it, you must just do it.


Some of my favorite photos I've ever done have been when I wasn't sure what I was doing. Some others have been when I would have preferred doing anything else besides get up and take that photo. Others have been the ones that are so personal to me it felt like I was showing the world a naked photo, and the weight that was lifted once it was published for anyone to see was liberating.


If you're dealing with something now, as I can imagine all of us are, I urge you to try to make something out of it. Even if it's not photography. Write down the words you feel over and over. Draw two stick figures yelling at each other. Dance to a sad song. Go for a drive and scream a song with all your heart. Lay down and take yourself on an adventure through your imagination. Play an instrument badly. Write a bad story. Create. Try again. Create more. Allow yourself the freedom of having no expectations. Or, give yourself ridiculous expectations and work until you almost meet them. You never want to fully meet them, or you will stop learning.


And, if you feel so inclined, share them with me. I will be your cheerleader. Let me lead that cheer, y'all.


So much love.

xoxo

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