Images hold information and stories; they evoke thoughts and feelings. Each image carries a different interpretation, as diverse as the people in the world, because every human being carries their own cognitive and emotional baggage. It’s a way of telling our own story and describing the world we live in.
Photography allows us to explore the links between images and our deepest emotions. In this article, I want you to discover how photography and psychology intertwine to offer us a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without images.
The world is becoming increasingly visual. Today, professionals are not the only ones who can produce images; anyone with a mobile phone or any device that captures images can do it, even without expertise or the need for visual skills. We tell stories through images from our unique point of view.
Photography is now closer to us than ever, allowing us to interpret and describe reality, capture important moments, and express emotions in visual and creative ways.
When choosing what to photograph, we make decisions influenced by our worldview, education, culture, intentions, interests, and obsessions. We pick what fits inside the frame and discard what stays outside. If you were to ask a group of people, wherever you are, to create a photograph, each image would be completely different from the others. And thus, a photograph becomes a self-portrait, a reflection of our emotions, thoughts, interests, and moods at that particular moment.
Sophie Calle. Photograph of Jean-Baptiste Mondino
Even contemporary art provides real evidence of the therapeutic value of combining creativity and personal expression, both for the artist and the viewer. Think of Sophie Calle’s work, for example. The growing trend of using both words and pictures to tell stories in museums proves this phenomenon. Photographic works evoke emotions and memories and act not only as individual expressions but also as universal ones.
No photograph is innocent or true; both the artist and the viewer use their own psychological and cultural references to express or decipher the image’s message.
Photography is no longer foreign to anyone; it’s part of our daily lives. It may no longer steal our souls, but it does reveal them.
The stories we create and express with images influence our personal and social transformation. Some of the images we create today will be part of social and scientific studies in the future.
“What do images tell me? Why, among multiple possibilities, only some capture my attention? As both an object and representation, photography surrounds me and is part of my everyday life.”
Psychology recognizes the power of images to influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Images travel directly to our amygdala, allowing us to remember the most significant, emotional, and transformative aspects of our lives. We think in images; images come first and embody thoughts and power.
First: Initially, a baby recognizes the image of its mother before learning her name. The image exists before the word; that’s why we recognize faces.
Thoughts: Our thoughts are all images. Our memories, dreams, and illusions are all images. Think about that place you want to travel to—isn’t it an image?
Power: Throughout history, those who have worked with images have strongly influenced the community. Images are suggestive; we can confirm this in many forms of commercial advertising. Images can become an educational strategy to build clientele and fans, but they can also shed light on unfair situations and transform them.
Psychology meets photography without needing advanced technical equipment and knowledge; it is accessible and immediate. The key is the eagerness to explore and express through images, reaching moments of personal fulfillment, and understanding one’s unique way of seeing the world.
Also, photography allows us to connect with others in communal and collaborative environments, share work, recognize ourselves in others’ images, and learn. Photography becomes a universal language that unites us and enables communication beyond language barriers.
“I speak through my photographs more intricately, more deeply than with words.” Richard Avedon
Today, photography is used in psychological research related to visual perception, memory, and identity construction, just to name a few. It acts as a tool to help explore and process traumatic experiences, promote self-reflection and self-knowledge, and foster personal growth.
The power of images is scientifically proven in medical and social projects within the art therapy framework. Photography, besides being used as a creative method, “promotes artistic creation, personal development, the integration of life histories, and the development of self-esteem and empowerment.” (Lockett, 2014).
This tool effectively connects humans with their deepest, unconscious, and spiritual parts within their context and adaptation.
The origin of photography as a therapeutic tool began in the early 20th century. You can read more about this in the following article:
In 1844 Duchenne de Boulogne (1806-1875), French doctor and clinical researcher, considered a pioneer in neurology and medical photography, in his book Mechanism of human physiognomy or electrophysiological analysis of the passions applicable to the practice of the plastic arts.
An interesting study conducted by doctors Cornelison and Absenian in the late 1950s (Martínez, 2016). involved using Polaroid photographs to capture their patients and immediately showing these images to them. The goal was to have them face their own image and then observe their reactions, categorizing them into four main groups: self-recognition, reactions to the images, emotions expressed in front of the portraits, and noticeable gender differences.
The doctors themselves published the study, which showed improvement in some patients. However, these were not self-portraits; the person didn’t have control over their image. These images were created from the researcher’s perspective.
“The things we react to, the choices we make, which lens, which angle, what we isolate from what, all these things say much more about us than about our subjects. Everything is a self-portrait or a piece of a self-portrait.”
Psychotherapy has seen the development of diverse approaches and psychological schools, some incorporating techniques for personal expression. This progress has led to art therapy models involving theater, music, dance, and visual arts—and the most recent addition: photography.
These techniques have evolved from individual frames associated with examining one’s photobiography or family album to creating highly transformative photographic projects and personal narratives.
Ways of Using Images in Psychotherapeutic Environments:
- Evoking memories and emotional states. Cognitive stimulation, reminiscence techniques.
- Reviewing family albums or photobiographies. Images that delve into and invoke intimate memories or emotions therapeutically. This strategy mediates and interprets the past and present..
- Motivation for verbal behavior.
- Self-portraits and self-observation. Authorship and model are one; you can choose which image to present.
- Photos taken by others. Understanding how we are seen is a fundamental part of building self-esteem.
- Development of personal photographic projects. It fosters individual expression and creativity.
- Documenting one’s own reality and experience.
- Photo-projective techniques. What happens when we observe any photograph, especially if it’s our own?
- Combining photography with other expressive techniques like theater can solve personal or social conflicts. They are reinterpreted and presented thoughtfully.
- Participatory photography. Workshops and activities designed to investigate and explore personal creativity, create a social space for documenting and portraying realities, and foster a sense of belonging within a group.
Read More: Jo Spence, the origin of therapeutic photography..
Other psychoeducational applications:
Beyond its application in the field of mental health, photography is also being used in educational contexts, where it fosters the development of educational projects that promote creativity, curriculum education, self-knowledge, interpersonal relationship building, and social responsibility.
The importance of professional guidance
Photography is adapting to several psychological and educational interventions, from healthcare environments to personal development or collaborative actions with social groups. The professional must be well-prepared to develop the project in all cases, considering potential combinations with other psychological or creative therapies.
We must understand the difference between photography as a personal and social transformation tool and its role in the psychotherapeutic process. Using photography as a transformative exercise is tied to our own self-discovery, artistic efforts, or educational goals, especially when the camera is used as an agent for personal or social change. On the other hand, photography can also be integrated into psychological therapy as a therapeutic tool within the psychotherapeutic process under the guidance of a qualified psychologist.
Photography and psychology combine to pursue health, well-being, and personal growth by using or creating images. The premise is that thought is visual; we think through images.
Through photography, we tap into realms of expression, exploring, interpreting, and narrating our emotions, revisiting memories, and creating rituals around significant aspects of our lives to access who we are.
At ANDANAfoto, in both our in-person and online training sessions, we witness the positive impact of using images for well-being, self-knowledge, and personal development. We do not address mental illnesses or ailments directly. Instead, we always work joyfully, using tools of expression and visual culture and incorporating the latest art trends. Contemporary art photography is full of examples of artists navigating confusing emotional journeys illuminated through the lens of photography.
Moreover, this photography process in childhood and adolescence is the same as what adults experience: increased expression, self-knowledge, and the responsible, authentic use of images, which positively affect families.
Psychology and photography are deeply intertwined; they look at each other and listen, creating effective, adaptable frameworks with hopeful results.
We are passionate about exploring this relationship between photography and psychology, offering training that integrates both disciplines for personal development and educational and social transformation.
We invite you to discover the transformative power of photography and explore your own path in this exciting world. We welcome you with open arms to walk with you on your photographic and personal journey!