Photography for the self

5 dk
A selection of unrelated colour photographs overlapping. There is a front of a pair of plimsoles, a portion of a tape deck, a foggy woodland, a yellow cup sat on top of a red book, a model of an old fashioned ship and a beach, dappled by rain.

Who are you?

Isn’t it always the simplest seeming questions that are the most difficult to answer? Answering ‘who are you?’ can take a great deal of exploration and self-searching but is essential to an understanding of your personal identity and can benefit your sense of worth, self-esteem and mental health. Many seek therapy or counselling to help them on what can be quite an emotional journey. But what if the idea of sharing your innermost thoughts makes you feel deeply uncomfortable? Or you simply do not communicate in this way?

Dr Neil Gibson understands this very well. Now a senior lecturer at Robert Gordon University School of Applied Social Studies, as a social work practitioner he has worked with many vulnerable children and adults to help them through the challenges of their everyday lives. Establishing their identity can be a crucial first step in coping with turbulent lives and circumstances beyond their control. However, sometimes this is far from easy, as everything from language barriers to neurodivergence and trauma can affect how much – or little – a person is willing or able to share.

Dr Gibson discovered the power of photography first-hand when, on a placement working with asylum seekers in Belgium, he gave them his camera to document life in their reception centre. He expected the resulting pictures to paint a bleak picture of their circumstances. “But all the photographs came back, and they were really positive aspects of life in the centre. And that was my first taste of using photography to explore your situation.”

Five people sit on chairs in a circle, talking. Behind them are two windows with the light shining through and there is a green leafy plant in the left foreground.

Therapeutic photography has great benefits during groupwork for its ability to act as a catalyst for discussion.

The idea of using photography in therapy is by no means new and Dr Gibson has investigated a range of different practices. “There’s one called phototherapy, where therapists use photographs to help people project feelings and emotions,” he explains. “But there’s another avenue called ‘therapeutic photography’ that is used in group work by people who were working with vulnerable and hard-to-reach people, to help empower them, give them a voice, and build up self-esteem and self-efficacy.” At that time, the way it was being used was quite unstructured, so Dr Gibson used his PhD studies as an opportunity to “provide some kind of staged exploration for people to come in and use photography to really explore all these different levels of their life – starting from self-image, right through to interpreting the environment and society.” He now teaches the first Therapeutic Photography course in the world to counsellors, therapists, social workers and coaches. But what does it involve? And how does it help?

It provides safety

Dr Gibson uses therapeutic photography during group work, and it’s an incredibly effective way to share without being put on the spot. “The first exercise, I just ask people to find an image on their phone or camera that they love and then share it with the person next to them, tell them about that photograph. Instantly this feels quite safe; ‘I’ve chosen that photograph; I’m choosing what to say about that photograph’” he explains. It’s those feelings of control over the process, and not being in the spotlight, that allow a person to gently begin to talk about the image they’ve chosen, which reflects an aspect of their identity. It’s far less intimidating than asking someone to simply tell everyone in the room something about themselves, which can often default to their job or something equally obvious.

It approaches difficult feelings gently

Ask a group to talk about their emotions and you’ll get mixed results. Largely, it’s not something people want to discuss openly. An exercise that Dr Gibson regularly uses asks the group to take photographs that represent six different emotions. Showing a feeling pictorially somehow feels easier, even though the results are often deeply personal. The images act as prompts for conversations, encouraging the group to share insights into their world and opinions on what they see elsewhere. There’s an abstract quality to this that allows group members to speak as much or as little as they need at the time – their photographs aren’t going anywhere and will be there when they are ready.

It’s about bringing together people who typically feel marginalised or have no voice in other aspects. So, bring people together to give them a voice through photography.”

It connects people without pressure

If you have ten individuals in a group who have never met before, there’s no doubt that they will, at least initially, feel self-conscious and unsure what to say or do. However, the exercises are designed so that each participant has a space to contribute. “It is very person centred,” explains Dr Gibson. “It’s also phenomenological because you’re exploring who it is to be you and what it means to be you and people help each other explore. You’re showing images to others and you’re getting feedback, as well as information about how they’ve coped with similar issues. There are a lot of dynamics going on.” Dr Gibson often asks the group to take photos on the theme of ‘My Safe Space’ and remembers one group that shared multiple images of closed curtains. “It led to a conversation about ‘what if?’ What if I see your curtains shut? What do you want me to do?”. The group subsequently considered helpful and supporting strategies together.

It puts you to see yourself in the context of your life

Pictures tell stories. So, it stands to reason that images you share with others in a therapeutic environment will help you to see your life through different viewpoints. “You can think about how people interpret you as a person in wider society,” explains Dr Gibson. “And future exercises then start to look at your life story.” This might be to take several photographs representing a typical day in your life and then question that routine. In another, you photograph something that you really dislike and argue for its banishment off the face of the earth. The ensuing conversations from these exercises can tell you a great deal about yourself.

As well as teaching his post-graduate course in Therapeutic Photography, Dr Gibson’s own practice has seen him use these techniques with a huge number of groups and individuals. During the pandemic, he ran an online group for those who had lost a loved one to the virus, “exploring the impact on their identity, and letting people take time for themselves.” He has also seen people with substance abuse issues, long-term illness, informal carers and young autistic adults benefit from therapeutic photography. “One of its underpinning aims is empowerment. It’s about bringing together people who typically feel marginalised or have no voice in other aspects. So, bring people together to give them a voice through photography.” But he stresses that it can be beneficial to “anybody who likes photography and has an interest in self exploration.”

Dr Gibson’s certificate in Therapeutic Photography can be gained exclusively through Robert Gordon University. However, numbers are limited. He has also authored a popular book on the subject: Therapeutic Photography: Enhancing Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy and Resilience, which can be bought at your preferred bookstore.