The photograph and self-therapy

The photograph at the top of this page was taken in the summer of 2006. I recently came across the photo in a folder of digitised, old photos and for some reason this was the image that came to mind when I was choosing a photo to go with the title Magical Fragments. The photo is an ephemeral fragment from my past and I felt that it fits visually with the title because of its fragmented composition.

I took the photo during a one-day road trip with my then boyfriend. I have always liked this photo; although I cannot say it brings particularly positive memories to mind since that relationship was not a healthy one. The memory of the day I took the photo has become as thin and translucent as the wings on the surface of the water, and would perhaps not even exist without the photo. I do not remember much in particular about that summer, although I do recall a general feeling. Nevertheless, I have an emotional connection to this image and there is a story that is not inherent in the picture, but part of my personal narrative.

As part of my research I have been reading about different approaches to the therapeutic use of photography as well as Barthes’ musings on the nature of the photograph. Photographs are powerful storytelling devices that are linked to memories, emotions, self-image, and personal narratives. They exist somewhere in a realm between an object and, quoting Barthes (1980), ‘the return of the dead’. The evocative and self-exploratory properties of photography lead me to include it in my research. Additionally, dress and self-portraits have similarities in that they are both about communication between the inner and outer self and other people. We are constantly creating living self-portraits through the things we choose to adorn ourselves with. It can even be argued that all photographs we take are to some extent self-portraits because we choose, often on an unconscious level, to take photos that reflect what is important to us (Weiser 2008, Loewenthal 2013).

While I was reading about memory and therapeutic approaches to photography, it prompted me to look at entries in an old blog of mine – I think it may be the first digital journal I have ever had – that I accidentally stumbled across a couple of weeks ago while looking for something else. There are many self-portraits on the blog; blurry, distorted, and awkward examinations of something intangible. Ever since I was 15 I have been using self-portraits as a way to deal with complex emotions, so when I read Cristina Nunez’s text about self-portraits as self-therapy I was able to relate on a personal level and realised that this was exactly what the photos on my blog and the numerous rolls of film I took as a teenager were about; self-therapy.

Therapeutic photography is a photo-based healing method that involves the use of the affective communication qualities of photography and photographs and people’s interactions with them (Weiser 2004, Loewenthal 2013). Nunez’s method of therapeutic self-portraiture builds on the idea that by forcing us into the now, the self-portrait helps us connect with our emotions on a deep level and this will stimulate our subconscious to communicate through the language of art (Nunez 2013). Facing the camera lens has the potential to create an experience of a deep non-verbal dialogue (Nunez 2013).

‘Shot after shot I live through all my different personas, looking for something that I still do not know about myself.’ (Nunez 2013: 97)

After years of self-portraits and photographing other people, Nunez (2013) eventually started asking other people to take self-portraits with her camera and created a method with a series of self-portrait exercises.

I agree, at least to some extent, with Nunez that difficult emotions are the raw material of art. Throughout history tragedy, pain, and existential angst have been the fuel for many creative works. Perhaps it is because intense emotions leave us feeling powerless and speechless and creates a need to find ways to take control of the situation and express our feelings in an equally intense way as the grip our emotions has on us. Creativity allows you to figuratively scream at the top of your lungs and smash the world around you into a million pieces.

So how does all of this link to objects, dress, and emotional connections. As already becomes apparent in the text, photographs are powerful mnemonic and therapeutic storytelling tools. And much like throwing away an item of clothing, discarding a photograph can be a very powerful statement. The photograph comes to represent a person’s emotional relationship with the object or moment depicted in the photograph and thus throwing away or destroying the photo can represent letting go of part of that relationship.

Photographs, especially self-portraits, and dress are both linked to image-making. Through self-portraits we seek to communicate parts of our identities to others and ourselves. In a similar way the clothes we choose to wear are an expression of ourselves that is driven by internal and external factors. Furthermore, specific clothes can also cause a desire for self-portraits and clothing in photographs has the potential to significantly add to the mnemonic value of the image.

When it comes to storytelling methods, photography can be a very emotional and self-reflective medium.


Anecdote: the first entry in the journal I started in October 2006, includes the photo that is now the background image on this blog.


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Loewenthal, D. (2013) ‘Introducing phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age’, in Lowenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 5-20 

Nunez, C. (2013) The self-portrait as self-therapy, in Loewenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 95-105

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *