Photography as a Healing Practice

“Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.” Edward J. Steichen

Photography as a form of expression offers unique and powerful ways to heal ourselves. When we carry a camera on our journey through life, we are forced to look outside ourselves and view the world around us in a new way.

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Photography as Meditation:

“A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

By mindfully emptying ourselves of the preconceived pictures we carry in our minds’ eye and opening ourselves to the infinite possibilities before us, photography becomes a form of meditation.

In order to take pictures, we must learn to be here now, alert to the subjects that call out to us in the moment. We also learn to focus and then to connect. In choosing and composing what we shoot, in playing with light and shadow, we capture something of ourselves in the final image. At the same time, we liberate ourselves as well.

Transcending Limitations:

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
Dorothea Lange

Consider Dorothea Lange, known for the moving photographs of migrant workers she took during the Great Depression. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, she moved with her family to New York’s Lower East Side after her father abandoned them. Soon afterward, she was stricken with polio. Throughout her life she walked with a limp.

At eighteen she got a job in the darkroom at a portrait studio where she discovered her passion. Saving everything she could, she bought a camera and two lenses, developed photos she took of her family in a backyard chicken coop that she converted to a darkroom, and took photography classes.

Three years later she and a friend set off to travel the world and sell her photographs to finance the trip. They made it as far as San Francisco where she was robbed. To support herself, she took a job in a photo-finishing department of a store.

Later, with a friend’s help, she opened her own studio. Eventually she began taking a series of photographs of the migrant workers caught in the Great Depression, which she remains famous for today. She said of her gift that she believed her life-long struggle with the aftermath of polio had helped her to be more sensitive to the sufferings of others.

Getting Started:

Although taking pictures can be expensive and technically demanding, it doesn’t need to be. Begin your adventure in therapeutic photography with the point and shoot camera you already own. Plan to allow yourself to use as much film as you need, so buy it on sale. If getting all those rolls of film developed is too expensive for your budget, ask your developer to “process only,” and then choose the specific prints you want made.

  • kyleTake a series of photos of places that soothe your spirit and leave you feeling peaceful.

  • Spend a day taking pictures of a baby or a very old person, documenting the ordinary moments in their lives.

  • Over several days shoot three or four rolls of film on one subject, such as hands or windows or tree branches.

  • Sit on a park bench or a big rock on the side of a mountain and photograph everything you can see from that vantage point.

  • Tell a story through a series of photographs about an issue that disturbs you or an event that gives you joy.

  • Pick a theme, such as love or loss or disappointment or innocence and take photos that reveal a facet of that theme.

Learn More About Photography as a Healing Art:

Photo Therapy Techniques by Judy Weiser. Weiser, a Canadian photographer and psychologist, has written a book that provides readers with dozens of ways to use photographs for healing and personal growth. Techniques range from responding to existing photos, including family albums, as a starting point to posing for self-portraits and taking photos. Although written for therapists, the book is filled with ideas and techniques sure to trigger insights in any reader. The paperback is available for $29.95 (U.S.). It can be ordered from its distributor, MMB Music and Creative Arts Therapies Books (1-800-543-3771).

Weiser’s Photo Therapy Centre Web Site
offers a great deal of excellent basic information about her five techniques of photo therapy and provides provocative food for thought about the way we view photos and arrange them into albums.

God Is At Eye Level: Photography As a Healing Art by Jan Phillips
Phillips, who also wrote Marry Your Muse : Making a Lasting Commitment to your Creativity, inspires readers and guides them with practical suggestions for using photography as a spiritual practice. The focus of this book is on changing the way you look at the world. Filled with her moving photographs, quotations from famous and not-so-famous photographers, and exercises, it is a beautiful book and one you will open again and again. Click on the title above to read excerpts from God at Eye Level posted on amazon.com.

Jan Phillips’ Web Site
details this multi-talented woman’s work as a photographer, workshop leader, songwriter and author.

View a sampler of Dorothea Lange’s photographs and be inspired by her words.

Read an article by Dr. Peter May in Nature Photographers Online Magazine
about how he used the challenge of wildlife photography to thrive after a shooting accident as a teenager left him paralyzed.