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What a selfie says about you

Many people will lament the constant barrage of smartphone pictures. Everything from selfies to food to everyday activities are now recorded and posted on social media for all to see. “Who cares?”, you may ask. I care as a therapist but you should as well.

In my work which has been primarily verbal, I’ve come (albeit slowly) to the realization that words can fail us. Words and speech can oftentimes be used as defense mechanisms in portraying our underlying motives, feelings, and thoughts. In my recent discovery of PhotoTherapy (i.e. the use of photographs in therapy), I can attest to the power of imagery, projection, and symbolic representations (oftentimes unconscious) found in photographs.

Photography (pictures taken by the client or by someone else), like other forms of artwork, has the ability to tap into a person’s inner self by bypassing many built-in psychological defenses. By having people look, take, or comment about pictures that resonate with them, we can unearth a new emotional landscape that is barely perceptible to the individual.

More specifically, in PhotoTherapy clinicians can guide clients to healing, self-understanding, and awareness by bringing photography into the sessions. In the book, PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums, psychologist Judy Weiser shows in detail how photography from the simple smartphone “selfie” to an elaborate, digitally-altered image can reveal a rich mosaic of hidden associations, memories, events, aspirations, and clues to one’s self and life journey.

Weiser considers photographs as “footprints of our minds, mirrors of our lives, reflections from our hearts”. To further this point, photography can offer a window to one’s soul since so much of our sensory input comes from the visual sphere. Weiser cites that “80 percent of sensory stimuli enters through our eyes” so consequently how we interpret what we see is crucial to an understanding of self. Consequently, the author believes photography is a great avenue to an individual's emotional world. "An ordinary snapshot gives form and structure to our deepest emotional states and unconscious communications. It serves as a bridge between the cognitive and the sensory, between the inner self lying below conscious awareness and the self able to be known to us, and between the self we are aware of inside and that self we are seen as by others."

Photography in and of itself is not merely capturing a factual event in time. There are meanings, motives, and emotions behind the image captured and the one taking the pictures. Furthermore, the interpretation of photographs (especially abstract ones) drives this point home. In the book Weiser gives a number of clinical examples that show how the non-verbal symbolism in photography is not only less intimidating than traditional talk therapy, but also how vital information is culled from PhotoTherapy that may not occur in verbal therapy due to the spontaneous and non-threatening nature of using photography as a means of communication.

In one example, the author describes how a woman saw photograph of an old building and viewed it as a representation of herself. The picture showed broken windows, tattered wood, and peeling paint to which she responds, “It is definitely me. My outsides are tattered and my paint’s peeling. Some of my windows are broken, so I’m not as protected from the wind and rain as I used to be. What you see when you look at me is my outsides, the boards and glass that are my shell. The windows that you’re supposed to look into to see me better only end up as reflections of the person who’s looking. The real me inside it all isn’t visible until the glass is broken away, and even then it’s in deep dark shadows. It’s really painful to have that glass shatter, because it protected me for so long, but it’s too much of a barrier now, and it kept people away. I want out now.”

This example illustrates the powerful use of symbolic representation found in photography. This is one example but others include how self-portraits, family pictures, or pictures people take can offer glimpses to their inner world. Obviously, PhotoTherapy is just one means of taking a non-verbal art form and using it as a medium towards self-discovery. I’ve worked with other clients who preferred to draw, recite poetry, or role-play in the session. No one method works best but in an age where smartphones and "selfies" reign, why not capture the moment?

(Photos courtesy of Pixabay free photos)

For more PhotoTherapy info:

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