When I talk about photo therapy and its connection with self-esteem and body image, I do so with a sense of knowing that although it is a powerful process that has been around for decades, many are still unaware of it. As for most creative therapies, the misconception behind the word therapy overshadows its potential and value. Sadly enough, because therapy is seen as a weakness, most people who are in need of help are just too embarrassed or afraid to ask for it. Unfortunately, these individuals are often the ones that are in need of it the most.
So how do we overcome this misconception that is attached to the word therapy? I have found that the best way to overcome anything is through experience. By giving people an opportunity to experience the process for themselves they have a chance to see and feel its potential and value first hand. This article is designed to do just that. While it provides an account of a client’s personal journey through photo therapy and self acceptance, it also allows you to engage in the process and offer your own interpretation and insight. And who knows, maybe you will find a connection where you didn’t expect to find one.
Therapy begins : The original image of the client has been replaced with a similar photograph to respect the client's privacy.
Therapist: So tell me what you see when you look at this photograph.
“When I look at this photograph I see a girl that keeps herself hidden from the world. She’s feels ashamed and embarrassed about the way she looks. She’s fat and ugly and has nothing to offer anyone. Yes, I know this sounds dramatic, but I can’t help how I feel. You asked me to tell you how I’m feeling and, well, what’s the point of that if I can’t be honest about it. I mean that’s what I’m here for right?
Yes, that’s right, that’s what you are here for. I’m glad that you can be honest about your feelings. Let’s continue then shall we. What else comes up for you when you look at this photograph?
“Well, when I look at this photograph I know that I am hiding. That I don’t like what I see. Not through the lens, but in myself. I don’t know where it stems from, I just know that it’s there and it’s with me everywhere I go. Funny enough though, so is my camera. Maybe that’s why I take my camera with me everywhere I go. If I’m distracted by what’s going on around me, then I don’t have to think about me. I can focus on everyone else out there and what’s going on in their lives. Is that right?”
It’s only right if it feels right to you. Does it feel right to you?“Yes. It feels very right. I hate myself. I hate everything about me. Especially my body and the way I look. Why couldn’t I have been born thin and beautiful? It’s not fair. All those women out there that are thin and beautiful just take it for granted. If I was thin and beautiful I wouldn’t take it for granted. I’d appreciate it more than them, that’s for sure”.
What I hear you saying is that you resent these women because they were born thin and beautiful and you weren’t. Is that correct?
Tell me more about the resentment.
“There’s not much to tell. I resent that I have had to diet my whole life and they haven’t. That they can eat whatever they want and never get fat. It’s not fair. Why do I have to work so hard, and for what? After all the diets and fads I’ve tried, I’m still fat and ugly. It’s just not fair.”
What would be fair?
“If I could eat whatever I wanted and still be thin. That would be fair.”
So eating whatever you want is fair?
“No, just being able to would be fair.”
What else would be fair?
“That I could be thin and beautiful like them”.
You want to be thin and beautiful like them?
“Yes. Well, no, not exactly. I don’t want to be them; I just want to be thin and beautiful like them. I still want to be me.”
So you don’t want to be them, just look like them?
“No, I want to look like me, just be thin like them.”
Okay, now I understand. But I’m still a bit confused. Earlier you said you hated everything about yourself. Has that changed?
“Well I don’t want to give up who I am. Aside from being fat, I kind of like who I am. I think I was being a bit dramatic before. I don’t actually hate everything, just that I’m fat.”
Okay, using the photograph, can you tell me the things you like about yourself?
“Well I love that I’m creative. I’ve been complimented many times on my photographs. People actually like them. They say I have a real eye for photography. So I wouldn’t want to lose that.”
What else do you see that you like?
“I like that I can see my reflection. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Like everywhere I go I always have someone there with me.”
And how does that feel?
“It feels good actually. It’s like I have a buddy that follows me wherever I go. I like that feeling. “
So would “this buddy” be someone you would enjoy being with?
“Yes, I would. When I look at her, I like what I see.”
And what is it you see?
“I see a girl who is creative, kind, thoughtful, and supportive. And she likes nature just like me.”
You can tell all this from the photograph?
“Yes, well, no. Well yes, and no. She does look like all those things to me when I look at her in the photograph, but I also know her. It is a picture of me after all.”
Yes, it is. So what does that say about you then?
“I guess that I’m all those things too … creative, kind, thoughtful and supportive. And that I like nature. Wow … I guess there are things that I actually like about myself. Maybe even really like. Maybe even love!”
And how does that realization feel?
“A bit odd. I’m a bit stunned actually.”
“Well because I came in here hating everything about myself, and now I’m sitting here feeling like I love some things about myself. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that before. I actually feel sorry for this girl now when I look at her.”
Can you tell me more about that?
“Well I feel like she got a bad rap. Like someone labeled her without ever getting to know who she really was. That because she isn’t thin, she wasn’t worth knowing. That makes me really sad.” (the client takes some time to cry quietly)
I can see this is very upsetting for you.
“Yes. I feel like I’ve been very hard on this girl … on me. I’ve been so focused on being thin that I forgot to notice all the good things about myself. And there are lots of good things. Like writing, I’m really good at writing short stories. I love it actually. And I love old people. I’m good with old people. I think they are funny and kind of adorable. They're old and wrinkled, yet they don’t seem to care. They just enjoy life. I know that’s not the case for all of them, but most of the ones that I have met are like this. It’s like they’ve reached a point in their lives where their weight or how they look doesn’t matter anymore. I envy that.”
Earlier on you were envious of the thin and beautiful girls and now I hear you saying you’re envious of the old and wrinkled seniors. Is that correct?
“Ya (client laughs out loud), isn’t that funny eh. Who would of thought? Me envious of the old people. I’m shocked. But … I think I like that much better than being envious of the thin people. If you were to ask me which one I would rather be, I would say old and wrinkled.”
And why would that be?
“Because then I could just enjoy life. Without worrying about my weight.”
Now that you are aware of what you really want, has anything shifted for you?
“Yes, how I look at myself. Ya, sure I may need to drop a few pounds, but I don’t need to be thin. I think I just need to take better care of myself. I think that’s something else I saw when I was looking at the photograph.”
I’m curious about that, can you tell me more.
“Well I saw this girl that I felt sad for. Partly, because she was heavy, but partly because I felt that she thought she wasn’t worthy.”
Worthy of what?
“Of being loved (the client takes more time to cry quietly).
That’s quite a realization.
“Yes … it is isn’t it? I guess I never really felt worthy of being loved. And I based that on my weight even though I had all these other amazing attributes that make me so worthy of being loved. How f***ed up is that? God, I feel like I’ve wasted so much of my life worrying about being thin when I could have actually been living it.”
Now that you have come to this realization, is there anything else you see in this photograph?
“Um … well, I see a camera pointed at me. It’s like this girl has been looking at me the whole time and hoping that I would see what she sees. So now she’s smart too! (client laughs out loud) Wow, I think I really like her. No, I think I really love her.
My intention for writing this article was to provide you with an understanding of what photo therapy is and to share with you the incredible power that lies beneath it. My hope is that you were able to identify with this young woman on some level and see how the photograph played an important role in the awareness she experienced.Unfortunately, as was evident in this young woman’s experience, we don’t always see things the way they are; rather we see things the way we want them to be. If we are to accept ourselves for the way we are, we have to step out from behind the lens that we have been using to see through, and start focusing on what’s really in front of us. The photograph allows you to do this in a safe and self directed manner.
Article by: Kelly Gauthier
March 18, 2012
As I sit down to write this article my eye is drawn to a photograph resting on the corner of my desk. I’ve looked at this photograph a hundred times before, but it’s uncertain as to why I pick it up this time and long to know more. I look closely at it, admiring its detail and simplicity all in the same moment. I begin to notice things about it that I hadn’t before and I find myself filled with questions. Who are these people? Do they know each other, or are they complete strangers? Does it have to be one or the other, or can it be both? These questions and more keep me compelled to look for answers.
A woman with sunglasses controls my thoughts as she stares at me with a welcoming grin. “She’s happy” I think to myself. Or, is she simply smiling for the sake of the photo being taken. And if so, does that mean she isn’t happy? Does it mean she doesn’t know the photographer, or she does? So many questions pop into my head as I try to determine what is really happening within this photograph. I get a sense that she knows the person taking the photograph simply because of her relaxed positioning. Her slouched posture and one arm propped up on the bench she sits upon, leads me to believe that she is somewhat comfortable with the person behind the camera. So the smile I questioned originally now becomes sincere. However, when I look further, I notice that she is the only one wearing sunglasses. Is she hiding from something or someone, or is the sun the only reason that she keeps her eyes covered? And further still, does this bear any relevance at all? While I find this question interesting, my attention is distracted by the woman in the forefront who has her back to the camera. I find myself wanting to know who she is. This takes my thoughts away from the woman with the sunglasses and directly to this woman in the lawn chair.
I notice that all the other people in the photograph appear to be looking at her. I find myself asking “who is this woman that she commands such an audience?” She appears very poised and positioned. Her legs are stretched out in perfect unison and her hair looks quite styled given the setting they are in. Why does she sit in a full length chair while the other three women are confined to a wooden bench? Confined? Why is that word coming to mind? Is it something I sense, or is it something I feel? This is a question that makes me go deeper and long to know who this woman is. How is it that she commands my attention too? I now notice that she not only has her back to the camera, but she also has her back to me as well. This awareness urges me to move on.
My eye is now focused on the girl on the end of the bench with her arms crossed. This typically is known to be a behaviour used by someone who is uncomfortable or closed off. Is she uncomfortable and closed off? The slight grimace on her face adds to the conclusions I find myself coming to. Yes, this girl wishes she were somewhere else. I look at this girl and I get a sense of who she is. I get a feeling that I know her or know of her. As though she is part of a bigger picture that I also belong to. I feel as though it could be me on that bench. That I could replace her in this photograph and be feeling as uncomfortable and removed as she is in this moment. I’m now left wondering why that is? Does this uncomfortableness stem from the woman on the lawn chair, or did it follow her to this situation? This photograph has stirred something within me that I didn’t anticipate. So I look even deeper. “So many layers to one photograph” I find myself saying out loud. I am immediately reminded of the many times I have peeled back an onion, layer by layer, and been in awe of its uniqueness and ability to hide within itself. Is that what this girl is doing? Is she hiding behind her own layers? I’d only be guessing at this point, but I have a feeling that there is more to her than what I see. I find myself strangely okay with this conclusion. As though not knowing is enough.
I move on to the woman at the far end of the bench. She appears to be much older than the rest, and her posture intrigues me. She sits somewhat tall, yet with a slight drop in her shoulders. Her hands are entwined and positioned carefully in her lap. I find myself wondering whether she has placed them there not for comfort, but for security. While she is physically a part of this group, her facial expression and body language leaves me feeling as though she may vacate this environment at any moment. Is that true or is it my own thoughts coming into play again? Since I can never know for sure, I defer to my own thoughts. I move passed them long enough to take notice of her positioning on the bench. For some reason I’m left feeling very uncomfortable. The distance between her and the woman with the sunglasses is not a lot, but it is enough to make me question the nature of their relationship. This older woman sits somewhat removed from the group, even though contained within it, and I wonder if the same feelings aren’t present for her. I notice that she appears to be looking straight ahead. I can’t tell whether she is looking at the woman in the lawn chair or if she looking at the person taking the photograph, but I’m left wondering if her uncomfortableness lies with one of these two people. I could draw my own conclusions, but somehow I know that wouldn’t be right. So I sit with the uncomfortableness that I believe we share, and move on to the gentleman in the lawn chair beside her.
This man is positioned on the outside of the group. Is he there as an outsider, or is he there to hold the rest of the group in? Other than the woman sitting on the lawn chair, all of the other women are facing away from him. Is this intentional or did it simply happen by chance? Maybe he joined the conversation after it had begun, and was therefore careful not to intrude. The slight smile on his face leaves me feeling at ease with him there, but not sure what his role is. He appears relaxed in his chair; although he too has his hands entwined and positioned carefully in his lap much like the older woman that sits next to him. This begs the question, are they possibly related? They appear to have similar mannerisms, yet they look disconnected. I now notice that he too seems to be looking at the woman in the lawn chair, which would indicate that she has gained his attention as well. Again I find myself wanting to know just who this woman is. I call out “turn around”, but she doesn’t answer and she doesn’t move. I wonder if she would have turned around for me if I was actually there. This makes me feel empathy for the photographer. A whole other story in itself.
So who is the photographer anyway? Is there actually a person behind the camera? Suffice to say that a camera can’t stand on its own unless supported by a tripod. So perhaps the camera was set up on a tripod and the picture was taken on a timer? If that was the case, it could mean that the photographer wasn’t actually taking the photograph, but posing for it. It’s a possibility, but more than likely not the case, since the photograph doesn’t appear posed enough to have happened this way. And this makes me wonder once again, why the woman with the sunglasses is smiling? Maybe, just maybe my initial observation was true … she’s just happy!
In conclusion, looking at a photograph is never as simple as it sounds. It will always stir up a question, an emotion, a feeling, or an observation. That is what photo therapy is all about, the stirring of things inside, the peeling of layers, and the realization that our interpretation of any given situation might possibly be incorrect. And if it is incorrect, how does that awareness change how we feel about the experience itself?
March 16, 2012
How Phone Therapy Can Boost Your Mood
Toronto Life Magazine - October 2012
Best of Fall, Special Issue
Article can be found on Pg. 12
Chatelaine Magazine May 2012
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It was on my tenth birthday that my father bought me my first camera. It came as a complete surprise and to be honest, not something I was exactly thrilled about it. I had spent the past three months wishing for something I could ride rather than something I could carry. Needless to say, it took me quite some time to warm up to the idea of taking photographs. However I eventually did and once I started I never looked back. The camera quickly became my friend and ally, going everywhere and anywhere that I went. It became my tool for documenting my life and my experiences. I loved that I could capture a passing moment on my camera and yet keep it with me forever. I cherished the images that I took and the moments that they represented. Before long I had completely forgotten that I had wished for a bike.
Thirty-eight years later things haven’t changed much. I still use my camera as a means of expression and a way of sharing the parts of myself that I keep hidden. It continues to follow me wherever I go and depict the moments that I find myself wanting to know more about. The images have somehow adopted a voice of their own. Each time I look at them, they have something more to say or something different. The conversation never gets boring. I see so many new things that I didn’t see at the time I took the photograph. Things that make me realize that there is so much more to any given situation than what we walk away with at the time. What an incredible journey they have taken me on.
I find myself wanting to revisit my past experiences by way of these photographs time and time again, yet unlike so many other things today, access to this place is free. I can sit and linger amongst my photographs and feel as though I have been transcended through time. I can look at a picture from my childhood and be reminded of a period when innocence prevailed, or I can look at pictures from my life today and see how all the experiences in between have shaped the woman that I have become. I am able to visit the places I have been and the places I’d like to go. But … more importantly, I can sit with the people that I have lost in my life and remember them without interruption.
When I look at these photographs and the faces of those who have passed, I can cry if I need to cry or simply smile at having known them. I am able hold onto the moments that we shared and the memories that we created. I can take comfort in knowing that because of the photographs that remain, these people will forever be a part of my life. No one can take this away from me. They are mine to keep and to cherish, and to visit with whenever the need arises. It warms my heart to know that even after a life ends, their memory lives on. I have learned that I can never really lose someone entirely.
An Example of a Client's Use of a Personal Photograph in Therapy
I remember this place well. In fact, I can almost smell it, that’s how well I remember it. So many summers spent splashing in the lake, picking wildflowers, and fishing for whatever fish would let me catch them. It didn’t matter what size they were, just that I had proof I had caught something on the end of my rod. It’s like time stood still when I was at the cottage. Nothing mattered, nothing begged my attention, and nothing stood in front of what I had planned for my day. It was a simple life and a simple friendship.
She was the one person that I felt most comfortable with. I could always be myself and never feel like that wasn’t enough. She encouraged me to be adventurous and to find new things to explore. To take the time to smell the flowers and the mud, and be patient while nature grew up and around me. She was forever mindful and forever playful. The age difference between us was great, but it never amounted to very much. I often think it was this that allowed us to be as close as we were. Ironic isn’t it.
I can still see her looking out this window and watching me run down the laneway. There was always a glimmer in her eye that grew as I got closer. I couldn’t wait to find out what she had in store for our night in front of the fireplace. Would it be a hand of Crazy Eights, a round of Life, or a game of Drunken Sailor? It never really mattered to me, just as long as we played for pennies, and we always did. She never disappointed me. I could always count on her bringing her little red change purse full of pennies with enough to share. I find myself wishing I had taken more time to appreciate the person she was and the little things that made her unique.
There were so many things that I loved about her. I loved that she wore red socks with her green pants and navy sweater. I loved that her hair was the same from one day to the next. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to try anything once even if it meant falling down. But what I think I loved most of all was her ability to laugh at herself regardless of the cost; and without intention, she taught me the value of acceptance and individuality. She gave me a sense of security in knowing that she would be the same tomorrow as she was today. I loved this about her.
I know that I will never forget her because each time I look at this photograph I am reminded of how much she meant to me. I am reminded that this window was not only a place for her to look out from, but that it is also a place that I can look inside of; and, deep within my heart, when I look at this photograph I still find the love of a simple friendship.
In Loving Memory of my Grandmother
Article by: Kelly Gauthier
March 21, 2012
As a therapist, I continue to be amazed by how many different answers I get when I ask the question “What are your thoughts on therapy?” The responses range in intensity, detail, and emotion, however the overall theme seems to be the same. Most are of the opinion that therapy is reserved for those who are mentally unstable. In other words, the general consensus is that therapy is for those who are weak. It appears that the age old taboo behind therapy remains intact. People still believe that therapy is a sign of weakness.I often wonder as I do when I am sitting in traffic, who exactly is at the front of all this congestion? The perception around therapy certainly doesn’t come as any surprise, but it does disturb me after all these years to see how little progress we have made in educating people around the positive benefits that therapy holds. My intention in writing this article was to find out for myself whether the age old mentality still exists.
To do this, I chose to visit various coffee shops and randomly chat with people I didn’t know. I wanted to hear their responses for myself and not draw upon someone else's conclusions. To my amazement, the overall theme was that therapy was meant for those who were unable to cope. In essence, therapy was only useful for those who had problems. But what exactly did that mean? When I dug a little deeper and asked for clarification around “coping and problems”, interestingly enough what I noticed the most was a real shift in mood and body language. What was meant as a simple question appeared to contain strong personal connotation for most. I had now crossed over and into a sensitive area.
I would be lying if I said that this was unintentional. As a therapist I know that soliciting personal opinion has the potential for making some people uncomfortable. And, as it turns out, I was right in thinking so. Nine out of 10 people I asked were definitely disinterested in continuing the conversation. Excuses were quickly made for why they suddenly had to leave or for why they were unable to answer. Only a select few were willing to continue talking with me and share their thoughts. In asking this question, I was in fact looking to see if people that I had just met would be willing to share something personal with me. It was interesting to see how many people were not. So what does that say for those who were? Does it mean that those who were willing to share are more confident in themselves and who they are, or does it mean that those who were unable to share are not? Truthfully, it could mean many things, but confidence and self-assurance should definitely be noted.
Taking into consideration that individuals are individuals, I knew that prying further would provide me with a variety of responses. So the next question I posed was “have you personally experienced therapy?” Of course most of whom I asked were those who were willing to continue talking, but the responses nonetheless were very interesting. Out of this group there were quite a few that had experienced therapy and only a few who hadn’t. Those who had were very open and willing to share, and their experiences were all very positive and promising. In fact, all those of whom I spoke with felt therapy had helped in one way or another. Some even felt that therapy had helped them identify other areas of their lives that were in need of attention aside from the area of concern that initially brought them to therapy in the first place. Those who had not experienced therapy had oddly enough been toying with the idea for quite some time. When asked where their hesitation lay, some were quick to answer while others needed more time to think about the question. In the end, every single hesitation was due to a lack of information or difficulty in making a decision. It seemed that deciding which therapist or therapeutic practice to choose from created anxiety for these individuals. In addition to this, most admitted to being afraid of asking for help or seeking out a therapist because it is seen as a sign of weakness. As it turns out, those who I spoke with that were willing to share their personal opinions with me also identified therapy with weakness. It seems as though when asked, most people see the two as going hand in hand.
So after a hundred different conversations and way too much caffeine, I finally got the answer to my question “Is the need for therapy seen as a sign of weakness or a sign of strength?” Without a doubt, attending therapy remains to be a seen as a sign of weakness. Sadly, history has repeated itself and will continue to do so unless those working within the health profession take it upon themselves to personally educate as many people as possible about the positive health benefits that therapy offers. And here’s a little tidbit that I think you will find very interesting, and one that I omitted until now for a reason. Not once, during all of the conversations that I had did I tell anyone that I was a therapist. However, once the discussions were over, I did share the information. These findings I think I will leave for another day and another article, But … what I will share with you now is this … while some pride themselves on knowing the look of love, I now pride myself on knowing the look of relief.
Article by: Kelly Gauthier
March 30, 2012
Children with nonverbal learning disorders (NLD) are often left dealing with the repercussions of a world that ceases to understand. They are faced with the realization that life beyond words exists only for those who are capable of asking for it, and that a voice without volume sadly creates silence. The frustration and rejection these children experience from their peers and society as a whole is disheartening, and the time has come when we must take responsibility for our lack of understanding and create a new means by which these children can express themselves.
The idea that a single thought or emotion could be captured or lay within the borders of a photograph has opened the door to the possibilities photography and photo therapy may have on children suffering with NLD. The potential a photograph has for bridging the gap between mind and matter has lead to new research around photography and photo therapy as an alternative means of communication for children with NLD. By providing these children with a visual language could in fact remove the pressure behind the need for a verbal one and the frustration around the lack of. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” takes on a whole new meaning when paired with children with NLD. Framed with emotion, the photograph has the potential to speak when these children cannot, and allow them to share their inner voice where language ceases to translate. This new research could change not only the way we look at this disorder, but also the way we don’t, opening up a world of opportunity and making a difference in the lives of so many children; moving us beyond the verbal barriers and into the realm of visual possibility.
Kelly Gauthier, D.V.A.T.I., BFA, Jan. 2009
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In this world of storms and rage, a peacefulness is found within. Bound below the release of tears and loss, I find the meeting place for hope.
A calmness rises up like vapours of a heated forest, and the fear of uncertainty becomes the energy from which I grow.
A connection unrooted finds its place, and my quest for family becomes transparent. This growing need for love and acceptance, creates a wave an ocean cannot contain.
A warmth surrounds me like that of a loved one past, and the anger that once crippled me is now the place from which I walk.
This leaves me wondering what remains undivided, what challenges are yet to come. My strength and softness both are challenged, leaving me with unsettled breath.
A breeze whispers to me like an angel from the heavens, and the clouds that cast their shadows open up and let in the light.
Breathing deeply and reaching out, I can touch the magic of change. It brings with it a wistful blowing, of optimism and untangled perception.
In this world of storms and rage, a peacefulness is found within. Bound below the release of tears and loss, I find the meeting place for hope.
By: Kelly Gauthier, 2009,Published: CATA Newsletter