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Post-Traumatic Growth

Expressing the Impact of Trauma Through Art

Post-traumatic growth is explored in Yael Martinez's Firefly photography series.

Key points

  • There are relationships between how people narrate their difficult experiences and their well-being.
  • Words, however, are not the only way to communicate or express challenging experiences.
  • Yael Martinez captures post-traumatic growth in his photographs in his Firefly (2019-2023) series.
  • The therapeutic practice can extend beyond traditional verbal communication.

Some experiences are hard to talk about. The experiences of suffering, loss, grief, and emptiness are profoundly difficult to come to terms with, and it is often challenging for us to put these experiences into words.

Our words, however, are powerful.

Psychologists have long been investigating the impact of translating difficult experiences into written form by examining the health and well-being benefits of journaling techniques and the narration of challenging and disruptive experiences in our life stories.

We might choose to write about our distressing experiences for many reasons. We may write in search of a resolution, meaning, or self-insight. We may write to heal from the pain. Or we may write to raise awareness about the impact of certain situations on ourselves or others.

Research has found that narration of difficult life experiences can be a beneficial process. There are numerous scientific studies evidencing a relationship between the act of journaling and individuals’ mental and physical health, as well as a relationship with well-being when individuals narrate their difficult experiences by expressing themes of agency, redemption, and connectedness to others.

For example, Jonathan Adler found that themes of agency increased in individuals’ written narratives following their psychotherapy sessions over a 12-week period, and these increases in agency in their narratives were associated with improvements in their mental health.

Words, however, are not the only way to communicate, or express, challenging experiences.

Recently, while visiting the V&A museum in London, I came across an exhibition showing photographs from Yael Martinez's Firefly (2019-2023) series. The photographs initially caught my attention because of their beauty, and the way in which he had incorporated light into his images by creating small holes in the images and shining light through them.

Yet, the series resonated with me in another way entirely after reading the accompanying description where Yael described the project as “an essay on resilience.” Yael further explained that the Firefly series represented the impact of violent trauma on individuals, families, and communities with these photographs taken in his home country of Mexico.

The pinpricks in the photographs convey the enduring impact of trauma on our bodies, our identities, and our social connections, whereas the light shining through these scars conveys the notion that we can transform even our darkest of experiences into light.

As a social psychologist who studies this precise topic—a phenomenon we refer to as post-traumatic growth—I was struck by the powerfulness of this series, of Yael Martinez's ability to convey this research topic in psychology in a format so different from my own.

Post-traumatic growth captures the positive psychological changes individuals sometimes identify in their identities, relationships, or worldviews through their struggles. The ways in which post-traumatic growth are reported are unique to the individual. For example, for one person, their experiences may motivate a deeper reflection on and understanding of the fragility of life, whereas for another, their experiences may motivate advocacy for themselves and others.

Importantly, experiences of post-traumatic growth do not mean that individuals have not suffered, are not still suffering, or that they have healed from their experiences. This research simply finds that people can, and sometimes will, report silver linings in the darkest of times.

Yael’s Firefly series resonated with me not only because of the familiarity of the topic, but more than that, because his photographs showcase the depth and ability we can have to communicate even the most distressing of experiences through rich and diverse mediums.

As someone whose profession relies primarily on spoken and written communications, this series of photographs is a refreshing reminder that the human experience has many expressions.

Although my discipline has shown words have therapeutic value, my hope is Yael’s photographs show that there are many ways in which the human experience can be expressed. The implications of which are that the therapeutic practice can be a creative and responsive space, which extends beyond traditional verbal communications.


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