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By Association Member Jennifer Gilmour.

What is Photo Therapy?

Definition: Phototherapy, Photo Therapy and Photo Therapy Techniques:

The use of photographs in a therapeutic encounter with a qualified art therapist/psychotherapist, family therapist, counsellor, psychotherapist or clinical psychologist.

Photo Therapy is not a recent innovation having been practiced in the United States for some years, photographer Ellen Fischer Turk being the most well known practitioner. Like Fischer Turk, I also use Photo Therapy to help people suffering from negative body image issues, although the methodology I prefer does differ from that of Fischer Turk, even though the objective and outcome are similar.

Photo Therapy essentially combines the use of psychotherapy and photography to help people overcome psychological problems associated with their body image. I am of the opinion that the two most common causes of these problems appear to be unresolved childhood issues and, increasingly, the influence of mass media images of beauty and success. The glossy media images portraying beauty and success have created enormous emotional pressures on men and women, the message being, to be successful one has to be ‘beautiful’. This has led to people constantly feeling judged for how they look, whether it is in their professional life or when interacting socially. Many more people are now developing deep psychological body image disorders, obsessions and even phobias. These body image problems can manifest into psychological conditions such as having low self esteem, depression, the development of eating disorders (overweight, anorexia or bulimia) and ‘mirror phobia’. Body image problems can also contribute to relationship problems and marital breakdown.

The therapy itself is similar to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), commonly practiced by psychotherapists today. The therapy, or ‘healing’, involves the person facing their past hurts and fears, dealing with any anger or resentments they are holding onto, and letting go of the past. By talking through these issues and then replacing their destructive negative thought patterns with stronger positive thought patterns, and photographing this process, they learn to ‘love’ what they ‘see’ when they look in a mirror or at a photo of themselves. The therapy is about changing the ‘internal’ first and then changing the ‘external’. When a person does not feel good on the ‘inside’ this is reflected on the ‘outside’.

The photographs are an integral part of the process as the digital images show how they are feeling on the inside, for example, their ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’ is reflected in their face and posture, the camera captures the image which can then be viewed immediately so they ‘see’ it for themselves. The photographs are a ‘tool’ to help in the process of the changes that take place throughout each session. How much a person wishes to physically reveal of themselves is entirely up to the individual. Unlike Fischer Turk, my clientele are not photographed nude (unless of course they feel this would help their particular problem). These are not photographic portrait sessions, in the traditional sense, either, although the client does have a final set of portrait shots taken at the completion of the sessions. They are then able to see how they have changed, for the better, and how happier they now look. All the photographs taken throughout the therapy sessions are given to the client on a CD and are private and confidential.

The therapy sessions also involve a ‘make-over’ for each client – men and women. But this happens gradually throughout each session as the person feels ready to take on the necessary changes. The concept that we are able to change, often takes time for some people to accept and adjust to, so once again the photographs help in showing how this is possible. This is particularly helpful for the professional clients I work with who very often have little interest in, or time for, the current fashion trends and shopping. So rather than conduct the sessions in the clinical confines of an office or a studio, I meet my clients at cafes, restaurants, shopping areas or in their home (their choice) where we can feel more relaxed and comfortable while we are talking and taking the photos. This also gives me the opportunity to pick up on their lifestyle, what clothing suits them best for their professional life and what suits them in their leisure time too. I teach them some ‘tricks of the trade’ and show them how simple and easy being fashionable can be. As we have a lot of fun working in this informal manner, it does not feel like ‘therapy’ at all.

Therapy is basically about ‘healing’ and I am just helping people to heal by being a non- judgemental, supportive motivator, teaching them tools to help keep them emotionally strong and positive. Whether the therapy is to overcome an emotional trauma, a body image disorder or phobia, or just to feel and look happier in the world, people need to overcome the stigma associated with the word ‘therapy’ and give Photo Therapy a try. The testimonials and photos I have in my portfolio (with permission from my clients) show and explain how Photo Therapy has helped the many individual body image problems that affect people today.