Phototherapy, Photographic Therapy, Therapeutic Photography–Yes, it’s Real!

American Idol Star Amy Davis, misses her hubby during a Virgin Islands Workshop

American Idol Star Amy Davis, misses her hubby during a Virgin Islands Workshop

After the article, “Posing naked for a women’s magazine felt brave and shocking,” by Melissa Whitworth came out in the UK’s version of Glamour magazine, the photographic therapy (phototherapy, therapeutic photography) topic has risen in photography forums world-wide. In fact, the very next day, I was called by a journalist and psychologist Clara Soares from the largest, weekly Portuguese newsmagazine Visão (www.visao.pt)  and answered some interview questions (actual story here)

The following day, I noticed the topic on one photography and model forum and as I engaged in the conversation, one female photographer said “…but I think that saying photography is therapy IS psycho-babble.”

Photography as therapy is not psycho-babble. I can tell you stories after stories, like the young woman, a former military police sergeant in the U.S. Army whose ex-husband used to beat her. She is not only intelligent, but beautiful and stands at 5′-10” tall. I photographed her for Playboy and she’s in my first photography book. She also modeled for me in some of my glamour photography workshops after she left the U.S. Army as an active-duty soldier. The process of our photo shoot, as she said, “Made her feel like a woman again.” She’s now remarried, with family and is a Federal law-enforcement agent. She’s obviously not working workshops or posing for Playboy anymore. She served and still serves her country well and patriotically.

I had another subject whose husband left her for the bridesmaid of their wedding. She’d just returned from completing the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidacy School and found her own clothes thrown on the front porch and her husband in bed with her best friend. Obviously it was instant divorce. Prior to her military enlistment she was a Wisconsin beauty pageant queen, in fact, she won the “Miss Photogenic” award and was the third-runner-up for this state beauty pageant. She felt hurt in this relationship to a point where she hated men for some time afterwards. During the phototherapy process, she stated, “This makes me feel beautiful and like a woman again.” She’s now happily remarried to a military pilot and they have kids and she’s honorably discharged out of the military service.

Another subject I was hired to photograph for a bariatric surgeon friend had lost 131 pounds thanks to that type of surgery—at the time she was 31-years of age. She’d come over for the “after” photo the surgeon had paid me to capture, a normal one-hour at the most photography session where the subject is photographed up against a plain, seamless, background paper illustrating how much weight she’d lost. I loved her charismatic qualities and inner- and outer-beauty, so I asked her to let me photograph her in a more “glamour photo,” perhaps on the couch or on the bed—for those wondering, with clothes, no nudity was involved. She mentioned no man had ever given her a second look and just to be in front of the camera, made her feel beautiful and like a woman again.

After the shoot, both her and my 275-pound assistant at the time, a tough guy that looked like he was a member of the Mexican Mafia, cried when I showed her the photos on my Apple Cinema display immediately after the shoot. I did something I rarely do, I burned her a CD of every photo taken and handed it to her, free of charge. She was beautiful with a clean complexion, there was no need for post-production. She gave me a big hug with tears still dripping from her eyes, that hug was my photographic therapy.

Now, to credit the photographer that made the initial statement about photographic therapy as psycho-babble, she also said, “An insecure woman may trust the photographer, but what if she trusts the wrong photographer? Wouldn’t that do more damage than good? “

A photo of "Shelby," a 27-year-old mother of two children.

A photo of "Shelby," a 27-year-old mother of two children.

She is precisely correct, the wrong photographer photographing someone in a depressed state of mind can make that depression worse. Depression kills. Depression comes in many forms from many things including postpartum depression. Just ask Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields about the latter form of depression. The problem is, most of the time we don’t know what’s on a person’s mind, hence building rapport with our subject is of the utmost importance before, during and after the shoot. A photographer, without prying too hard, should know enough about their subject to understand their state of mind, but a photographer should never think they are there to replace a trained, medical professional.  A photographer must learn when to listen and heed what they hear.  A photographer must know when to ask the right questions, how to ask them, where to ask them and why to ask them to help build that rapport between them in addition to understand their subject better and to help the phototherapy process flow with positive images.

If a photographer’s subject suffers from depression and that photographer doesn’t know how to recognize it, no matter how slight the depression may be, it can lead to a bad situation. A photographer should only look at their photography as a “layer” of treatment helping to build or re-build self-esteem but never to replace a physician prescribed drug or as a substitute for a therapy session by a trained, medical professional. Statistically, there are more male photographers than females, and even though some males feel they understand women, they will never know what it’s like to be a woman.

Motherhood is a good example. Unless a photographer has delivered a baby through a bodily canal, I doubt they understand what it’s like to give childbirth. It has nothing to do with changing diapers after the fact, that’s what good Dad’s do to help Mom’s out during postpartum recovery. “New mothers” go through a complete body change after childbirth. Photography is awesome, if done right, to make moms feel more secure about themselves again. Another article I wrote for my blog, Is it a Lens Barrel or a Gun Barrel? addresses that statement. Bravo for the photographer on the forum that brought this up because if a photographer doesn’t know what they’re doing, they can make postpartum depression worse and perhaps even leave a new child motherless for their entire life.

We grow up with "Ken and Barbie," but this photo of my daughter and her husband on their honeymoon illustrates that romance is there, no matter what physical features you don't see.

We grow up with "Ken and Barbie," but this photo of my daughter and her husband on their honeymoon illustrates that romance is there, no matter what physical features you don't see.

Now that leads me to another phototherapy experience. I had a subject, 8-weeks into motherhood. Her figure was gorgeous, though she didn’t think so. It was her first child, her only marriage. She wanted to “rekindle” that romance with her husband of a few years because she felt her body had changed and the fact that she had to give so much attention to her new-born that left no time for her husband. She also wanted this photographic therapy session for a surprise Valentines Day gift, a sweetheart romance gift, all for him. You could see the love for him in her eyes as she asked me to help her create the perfect photographs of her for this romantic moment she was so meticulously planning.  She wanted to show him she was still beautiful.

She hired me to photograph her on the beach in conservative swimwear and some fashion beach clothes. I photographed her for two days, never did she pose nude in any form. Never did I photograph her suggestively in any sorts. Beach clothes and swimwear, the most risqué, if you want to call it that, was a two-piece, full-bottom, bikini. She presented these photos from her phototherapy session to her husband with red-wine, strawberries and chocolates on Valentines Day right after consuming the in-home, candlelight dinner she’d carefully prepared all day—the baby was with the sitter that evening and night purposely so they could have this romantic time without interruption. She’d even disconnected the telephone.

It was a long-overdue romantic, quality-time with her husband, she later told me. All went well until she proudly presented her hubby with these professional photographs. Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the built-up sexual frustration, perhaps it was insensitivity, perhaps it was the fact he was just a jerk. We’ll never know, but ultimately, he accused her of being a “slut” a “whore” a “worthless piece of crap” all because she had posed in photos with a male photographer–they are now divorced. She still cherishes those photos today and actually is thankful that she found out what she really married. She’s a proud parent feeling sexier and secure than before those photos were ever taken.

Moral of that story, no matter how good the photography or photographer is, no matter how much the subject “needs” to go through the phototherapy process and no matter how good it makes the subject feel and how much it can uplift self-esteem, others can still destroy it.

I might add, phototherapy isn’t just for women in their 30’s, like writer Melissa Whitworth, or women in their 40’s or even 50’s, it has a lot to do with women of every age and perhaps society is the reason. The minute we’re born, momma takes us to the grocery store. There we sit, in the grocery cart. As momma puts our baby food on the conveyer belt at the checkout counter we see magazines galore in every direction that we look. Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated Swimwear, the weekly trashy rags too, all filled with buxom Barbie looking beauties proudly displaying their cleavage.

Young girls grow up with Barbie dolls–never are the dolls over-weight or middle-aged. When is the last time you saw a single parent, Barbie Mom? Society trains young girls way before puberty with the belief that to capture your perfect male playmate, he must be a tall, blonde, blue-eyed “Ken,” and that girls grow up to be a tall, slim, curvy, blonde, bombshell, Barbie.

As men, even our self-esteem is hurt when we realize we are not Ken. We accept who we are and move on. We age gracefully with our salt and pepper beards and hair. Perhaps that’s why many photographers, like myself, feel photographic therapy from the back-end of the camera, knowing we’re making our subjects happy with the results because obviously it’s not with our Ken-less looks.

Nudity is not a requirement of your subject during phototherapy.  It's ultimately your subject's decision if she will or will not pose nude for the camera.

Nudity is not a requirement of your subject during phototherapy. It's ultimately your subject's decision if she will or will not pose nude for the camera.

Society teaches us that the perfect body comes in many forms, from Playmates to Victoria Secret Angels. Our dads unknowingly add to that on football Sunday when the video camera pans across the playing fields broadcasting the sexy, slender, sultry and sensuous cheerleaders with butt cheeks and cleavage hanging out their mini-outfits. Bookstores across the world sell their cleavage abundant calendars, we later put them on our walls or desks to remind us year-round what we’ve been trained to like in qualities of a woman.

We see all kinds of television shows celebrating “T and A” in many forms, the television industry executives know, “Sex sells.” One of the hottest shows around the world was Baywatch and it was often joked about at the office the next day as “Babe Watch.” Our own society has programmed us to accept certain things, hence why the United States is a leader in the volume of breast implants and plastic surgery. I’m even sure the same holds true for tanning salons and Botox treatments. We are guilty, even I, as a photographer whose portfolio includes Playboy Playmate beauties, for creating this perception.

Do I regret it? No. I enjoy making women feel great about themselves because of my camera.  My finished photos and post-production with Adobe Photoshop fills in the gaps to help them look like that Barbie they never will be.  Perhaps that’s why the term “Photoshopped” was coined, because like a darkroom, it allows for corrections of blemishes with the clone and the flattening of stomachs with a little liquify tool.  “Heck, you want big breasts, no problem, just liquify them right out in Photoshop,” is something I’ve heard photographers tell models at some of my workshops.

I was hired by St. Martin’s Press to photograph a New York Times best-selling romance author, Lisa Kleypas for her first mainstream book, Sugar Daddy.   At the time, Lisa was a 42-year-old mother of two and  explained to me before the shoot that she didn’t want to look “fat” in her photos.  I understood.  Lisa later wrote on her blog, “This is the photo that will go on the back of Sugar Daddy. Lisa-au-casual. It was taken by an incredibly talented photographer, Rolando Gomez, who is great at making women look their best. He finds the right angles and the right lighting, and he makes you feel comfortable and unselfconscious. The photo hasn’t been touched up or photoshopped . . . which leads to the following confession: Before the first picture was even taken, I was looking forward to that photoshopping.”  (read more from Lisa and myself)

New York Times best-selling romance author, Lisa Kleypas in the original photo chosen for her book, Sugar Daddy.

New York Times best-selling romance author, Lisa Kleypas in the original photo chosen for her book, Sugar Daddy.

As proven through her book sales, Lisa understands the female audience well and the market for romance novels is extremely large in the book industry. Romance novels are the fairytales many Barbies experienced, perhaps the foundation for those novels started at the Barbie stage, obviously without the more provocative and sexually discriptive vocabulary.

The Internet model and photography websites are no different. I’ve seen profiles of models that display anger because people criticize how they look in their more poorly done photos, especially when the photographer does no post-production or doesn’t know how to do it properly. Thankfully for them, a seasoned professional photographer knows photogenic beauty when they see it and normally does not judge a model’s talent for lack of the photographer’s talent or photoshopping skills.

I’ve already written about 35,000 words of a 50,000-word book on phototherapy and it wasn’t done overnight. A typical book takes at least a year to write, this one I’ve been working for what seems like 20-years because the experiences come from my 30-plus-years as a professional photographer. This is not a book of photos or photo essays, this is more a book of words, perhaps a follow-on book will be more a photography book, coffee-table oriented. Unlike my previous three photography books (fourth due out soon), this book on phototherapy is a mainstream book for everyone. The more specific target audience is people who believe in the power of photography to help build or re-build self-esteem. Ultimately I hope that a reader will come to realize that a close friend or family member is in need of a little phototherapy in their life and will recommend a well researched-out photographer. Perhaps they will indirectly save a life with this recommendation. Photographers will hopefully learn from this book by simply understanding the phototherapy process and scenarios.  (Literary agents take note, I don’t have one, but need one!)

My only hold back, unlike “How-To” photography books, mainstream books require a good literary agent if you want to land a decent publisher. This type of book not only requires a top publisher, but it deserves it. I also want to add, while Melissa Whitworth’s article in the UK’s version of Glamour magazine was about “nude” phototherapy photography, I firmly believe nudity is not a requirement though the subject should have that as an option. The golden rule in any type of photography, whether it’s coined photographic therapy, phototherapy, therapeutic photography, etc., is that the photographer should never force their subjects to pose in any manner they don’t want. It should be a marriage of the minds between the subject and the professional photographer, a collaboration to create photographs that will ultimately please the subject and enforce her self-esteem in a positive manner.

Well I close now, and if you want to hear my thoughts, here’s an interview I did in Oct. 2006 while attending Photo Plus Expo in New York as a guest speaker–yes, I’m speaking this year again, though a different topic.  Enjoy, and don’t forget our service men and women, their families and friends and all those that help protect our freedoms.  Thanks, Rolando


  1. Vince says:

    Rolando, I admire your insight and agree wholeheartedly. It is so common for women to feel conflicted about their bodies, especially in our repressive American culture. It takes a great deal of courage for a woman to step before a camera for a figure photograph. I have found that of all the counseling I have done over the years, nothing comes close to the experience a woman can feel by being artfully photographed. More often than not clients tell me, “My photo session was like therapy.” To those of us who know the power of photography to transform and heal, there is no greater reward.

    Thank you for reminding us all of the privilege and responsibility we as photographers have. Most of all, thanks to all of the women who step up and celebrate their beauty, courage, and passion for living!

  2. Ken Byrne says:

    Just to confirm my request for the new phototherapy book.

  3. Good Job Rolando! you can read my review and take on your new book at my blog. Please keep up the great work, I am so glad you broached this topic.


  1. […] O trabalho feito pelo profissional não substitui as terapias clássicas, mas tem virtudes. Saiba mais sobre este assunto, nas palavras do autor, em: http://rolandogomez.net/2009/10/phototherapy-photographic-therapy-therapeutic-photography-yes-its-re… […]

  2. […] the book “Photographic Therapy”,  Rolando tells some stories about people whom he has come across, and the images he has taken of them, and goes over some […]

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