With a press of a button, you can capture not just images but emotions, memories, and sometimes even a sense of peace. Photography is more than a medium for artistic expression; it is a therapeutic practice.
In a society saturated with visuals, from social media feeds to billboards, we often overlook the emotional and psychological impact that art therapy can have.
Yet, what if the simple act of taking a photograph could help you understand yourself better?
In this article we’ll explore how photography can have a positive effect on your mental health.
Positive Effect of Photography on Mental Health
So how does photography help mental health specifically?
There’s no question that rates of depression and anxiety are rising, particularly in the current economic and pandemic conditions. Did you know that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide?
Although this is disheartening, there are many alternative paths to healing. While we would never downplay the importance of traditional therapy, many people have also reported significant benefits from engaging in art therapy (often alongside it).
According to this comprehensive overview of the research, engaging with art forms like therapy has decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. Other studies show that photography also improves your psychological resiliency.
Researchers also found that snapping a photo each day makes people feel better. This happens because it encourages people to take a minute for themselves, build a sense of community, and reminisce back at good memories, offering a little mood boost.
Another study shows that the way selfies are made and shared gives people a sense of control and empowerment. Plus, selfies can be adapted and shared in various ways, serving different social purposes depending on the platform or context.
Therapeutic Photography vs. Phototherapy – What is The Difference?
Using photography as therapy can be done in two ways. While these two concepts overlap, they have some notable differences.
Therapeutic photography is generally a self-directed activity where the main goal is personal exploration. You pick up a camera and capture images that reflect your emotions, interests, or anything you find compelling.
Therapeutic photography techniques focus on self-expression, and you don’t need professional guidance to engage in it. You can share your photos, discuss them with others, or even keep them private. The purpose can be as simple as boosting your mood or as complex as helping you articulate your feelings.
Phototherapy is a formal therapeutic process that operates under the supervision of a qualified mental health professional. This isn’t something you do casually or on a whim.
It’s part of a larger treatment plan tailored to address specific emotional or psychological issues you may be facing. The activities you engage in are designed by a professional to facilitate mental healing or understanding.
Phototherapy delves more deeply into guided explorations of your subconscious mind, all within a structured therapeutic setting.
5 Therapeutic Benefits of Photography
In this section, we’re going to delve into some specific ways in which photography as therapy can help you process and heal:
#1. Photography Helps Shape Your Narrative
Using photos in therapy or other social settings can really help people. Mental health photo therapy can make it easier to talk about feelings and thoughts, even when it’s hard to put them into words. This is backed up by research.
However, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to use photos for this purpose; different experts use different methods.
The idea is that photos can tap into deeper parts of our mind, helping us understand and deal with feelings or experiences that we might have pushed aside.
Photographs can help people make sense of their life stories by bringing up old memories and helping to give them new meaning.
#2. Encourages You to Be Mindful
Therapeutic photography can be an exercise in mindfulness, a mental state where you are fully present and engaged in the moment.
When adjusting your camera settings or framing the perfect shot, you are practicing mindfulness. You are tuned into your senses and current activity, dismissing distracting thoughts and worries.
Imagine you’re capturing the intricate details of a flower. As you zoom in, you notice patterns and colors you’d typically overlook. This intense focus pulls you into the present moment, acting like a meditative practice.
#3. Encourages Movement
The health benefits of photography extend beyond the psychological or are tied to it. Photography also encourages physical movement.
The act of finding the right angle, perspective, or vantage point requires you to walk, crouch, or even climb, thereby incorporating a level of physical activity that can enhance your well-being.
#4. Puts You in a State of Flow
The concept of “flow” was introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a mental state of complete absorption in one’s activities.
When in flow, people often lose track of time and experience heightened creativity and satisfaction. Photography can often induce this state, particularly when you are deeply engrossed in capturing the nuances of your subject.
Just like meditation, being in a flow state can calm your mind, reduce stress levels, and offer various health advantages.
#5. Builds Communities
When you upload your photo to a social media group or photography forum, you’re throwing open the doors to a community of like-minded souls. You can meet people who share your passion for capturing the extraordinary in the everyday.
A chat about aperture settings can evolve into meaningful relationships, and these newfound connections become your shutter buddies – because every photograph you share is an invitation to connect.
Examples of Photography Used Therapeutically
As mentioned, therapeutic photography techniques aim to use the art and process of taking photographs to improve mental health and well-being or to cope with stress and trauma.
Below are some examples of some powerful mental health photography projects:
- PhotoVoice: This charitable organization aims to bring about social change through photography. By training people to use photography to tell their own stories, PhotoVoice helps marginalized individuals engage in expressive therapy, improving their mental well-being and giving them a voice.
- The One Project: This initiative aims to use photography as atherapeutic expression for people who suffer from depression and anxiety. It’s essentially a community where people can share photographs that help them communicate their feelings.
- Veterans Photo Recovery Project: Focused specifically on veterans, this project uses the power of narrative and photography to help participants cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Mindful Photography Workshops: Various organizations and individuals offer workshops that combine mindfulness techniques with photography. The aim is usually to improve participants’ awareness of the present moment, which can have therapeutic benefits.
- Soulumination: This non-profit organization provides life-affirming photographs to families facing life-threatening conditions. The aim is to provide emotional healing through the power of photography.
- Project 365: While not designed as a therapeutic initiative, the “take a photo every day for a year” challenge has been used by some individuals as a way to document their lives and emotions, often with therapeutic results.
How To Use Photography In a Therapeutic Way
Here are some therapeutic photography exercises where people can use this medium in a therapeutic way – use these ideas as inspiration or come up with your own.
- Photo Journaling: Keep a daily or weekly journal with photographs that capture your mood, events, or environment. Reflect on these images to understand your emotional state better and possibly identify triggers for specific emotions.
- Gratitude Photography: Each day, take a photo of something you are thankful for. The act of consciously identifying positive aspects in your life can be therapeutic and mood-lifting.
- Self-Portraits: Explore various sides of yourself through self-portraits. This can help with self-esteem and self-expression and be particularly useful for individuals dealing with identity or body image issues.
- Before and After: This project could be helpful for people undergoing a physical or emotional transformation (e.g., weight loss, recovery from surgery, healing from a breakup). The comparison can offer a sense of progress and accomplishment.
- Emotion in Color: Choose a color that resonates with your current emotion and find objects or scenes dominated by that color. This can help you tune into your emotional state.
- Life Timeline: Create a photographic timeline of your life, capturing significant milestones or events. This can offer a broader perspective on your life journey and help you reflect on the positives and negatives in a balanced manner.
- Nature Walk: Engage in nature photography to experience the therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors. This can be very grounding and offers a unique way to connect with the environment.
- Family and Friends: Taking candid or posed photographs of close family and friends and the genuine emotions in the photos can help deepen your appreciation for these relationships. It can also be a way to mend and heal strained relationships through the collaborative act of taking and sharing photos.
- Pet Project: Photographing pets provides a sense of accomplishment and enhances the human-animal bond, which can be very therapeutic.
- “A Year in the Life”: Commit to capturing one photo a day for an entire year. The result will be an impressive portfolio and a visual record that offers deep introspective value.
Phototherapy, which is guided by a mental health professional, can be incorporated into treatment plans for specific conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. While therapeutic photography may offer general mental health benefits, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions.
You can start with simple projects like photo journaling, where you capture images reflecting your mood or events in your life. Gratitude photography, where you photograph things you’re thankful for every day, is another easy-to-start project. These projects require minimal technical skills and can be done with any camera, even your smartphone.
The beauty of therapeutic photography is that you don’t need high-end equipment to start. Even a smartphone with a decent camera can be sufficient. If you wish to explore further, a basic digital camera with manual settings can offer more creative control.
Absolutely, kids and teens can significantly benefit from engaging in therapeutic photography. It provides them an outlet for self-expression and can help them articulate complex emotions they might find challenging to verbalize. This can be particularly helpful in adolescent development and emotional growth.
As we have explored, photography offers a rich, multi-faceted avenue not just for artistic exploration but also for emotional and psychological healing. And the research clearly points to the benefits of therapeutic photography for mental health.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of using photography as therapy (or art therapy in general) is its accessibility; picking up a camera and capturing the world as you see it requires minimal training and resources.
So, if you’re still not convinced, get out there and try it out yourself! And take a look at our other articles at OhMyCamera to really learn the nuts and bolts of the trade.