She cries. Her body changed forever. Between foundation and hydrogenating skin creams, she gets teary-eyed. She looks down between her feet and sheds tears, not pounds. Her husband assures her–child-bearing, age and weight are just the by-products of a great-life, yet her self-esteem is the lowest its ever been. Her friends recommend photography as the cure-all, not the typical tummy-tuck, face peel, lipo, botox or faddish diet.
More clearly put, photographic therapy are the words she hears, her friends say it’s not only therapeutic, but an experience like no other, a graceful dance, a romance, titillating without the sex, a process that can rekindle the romance with her spouse of many years. She’s in, let’s do it, she says.
First she locates a photographer with experience, not just any photographer, but one that understands glamour photography, one of the hottest genres of photography thanks to celebrities taking over the precious, magazine-covers, real-estate once reserved for super models. In her quest, it must be a glamour photographer who understands the history of this genre, back to the Hollywood roots where photographers like Ruth Harriet Louise from MGM Studios in the 1920′s would glamorize celebrities. A glamour photographer who knows the outer-beauty of a woman is the skin to the more precious inner-beauty, her soul, her self-esteem, her love, her fantasies, her charisma, her sexiness, seductiveness, sultriness and sensuality–her good life. –an excerpt of Photographic Therapy, by Rolando Gomez, author.
Photographic Therapy is my personal belief that the power of photography is useful for helping rebuild or build self-esteem. Photographic Therapy is a powerful drug, a natural drug that I hope someday physicians, therapists, psychologists, etc., will prescribe to their patients–however, like all drugs, especially when people are in vulnerable states, it can be exploited, thus I hope with the support of an “angel” I can get my book finished and published in addition to creating the “PT” movement in this world.
I’ve experienced it myself, as PT is a two-way street too! I own the domains, photographictherapy.com, .net, .org along with phototherapy.org, though I have nothing on those sites until I can create a more sabbatical environment to finish my book and get the websites created. My vision is a powerful book that will hopefully save a life, support groups and an Internet presence with forums, tips, articles, and more to help those who have experienced breast cancer, relationship issues, weight problems, postpartum depression, age, etc., or what I like to call “life.”
Not all subjects in need of photographic therapy are affected in negative ways, some are just experiencing life, as an example, 14-years of marriage, two-kids, age, and what I call the “good-life.” Photographic therapy is for all, but more important, for women and I base this on my own private glamour clients. The future is photography, a drug no disease can become immune to.
If you’d like to know more about Photographic Therapy or would like to contribute to the Photographic Therapy Sabbatical environment, please contact me. A sample of my writings for Photographic Therapy are below. Thanks, Rolando.
Photography, in some form, affects just about every facet of our lives. Correspondents visually document the tragedies and successes of our lives at home and around the world, paparazzi snap the private moments of those we view as celebrities. Sports photographers capture the glory, as well as the defeat of our gladiators on the field of play. Advertisers pay photographers hefty sums to entice customers with everything from the most current fashions to the most exotic vacation havens or the latest technological craze. Selling homes, setting lavish tables for the most discriminating gourmet cook, following blood vessels to the heart, arousing our prurient interests–the list goes on.
But there is an area of photography very few of us as photographers have really looked at closely, even though many of us at one time or another have dabbled in it, even accidentally. That area is using photography as a form of therapy. Photographic therapy is not model photography, but how you achieve the “model” moment for an individual photographically.
No, it’s not to say photographers will replace the couch anytime soon as the preferred way to work through emotional issues or will crack the code for mental illness. But photography is beginning to be used more and more as a way for many people, especially women, to see themselves in a more positive light.
Photography as a form of therapy is just as much about the process of taking the photograph as it is about the end result. A classic example is that of a longtime friend of mine, we’ll call “Kathy,” who was sexually assaulted by a co-worker while in the military. To add humiliation to the trauma, her commander threw the blame back on her and she was forced to leave the military for being unable to adapt to military life.
This once vivacious, extremely intelligent and confident woman was reduced to a shell of her former self. She faced the humiliation of the rape itself, she felt isolated and alone, ostracized by her peers and she felt she was simply a number, easily discarded by the military system. The result: A huge loss of self-esteem, sense of worth and a need to validate her rightful place in society.
Using photography to get Kathy back on the road to recovery was never a conscious decision. Posing in front of a camera is the absolute last thing someone in this situation would want to pursue. The process began with long talks between two friends. I was there to listen, not psychoanalyze.
“The biggest reason I agreed to our first shoot was because I was always treated with respect” there was never a come-on, never a pass made,” said Kathy. “I always felt in control of the photographic sessions and we would go over the shots from each session to see what could be improved. We would look at facial expressions, the various poses, the lighting and so on. My input was just as important as the photographer’s and that meant a lot to me.”
As an up and coming glamour photographer, I had a fairly extensive portfolio of photographs on hand. Kathy would often thumb through those photos, as well as books I had on the subject, and lament that she no longer felt like a woman. Her idea of the perfect woman was something out of a Victoria Secret catalog or Playboy Magazine. Something she felt was unattainable.
The road to recovery began with her agreeing to a series of photo shoots to help bolster her confidence and prove she was just as desirable as any catalog or centerfold model. The first thing to consider was the location. At this point Kathy hated men (except me of course). So, I chose a mutual female friend’s apartment as the shooting site.
Part of the therapy process is to find the subject’s likes and dislikes and what makes the subject the most comfortable. The most important part of the shoot is to establish rapport. I made it clear from the start that even though I could compliment her beauty and see her in a vulnerable situation, I would never, under any circumstance, take advantage of that situation. As Kathy found out, sometimes the obvious isn’t always the best.
“I had the idea that by changing my look and wardrobe, I could escape my past. But I was told to go back to my comfort clothes–those clothes that I had practically worn out because they made me ‘feel good.’ We had photo shoots both ways, but not one of the shots we took wearing the new clothes were used.”
One photo shoot is not the answer to using photography as a form of therapy. The therapy comes into play over the long term–getting to know the subject, building confidence, always explaining the rationale behind each photograph. It’s important to always keep the subject informed and always aware of the types of angles, close-ups, focus, etc., and never left guessing as to the photographer’s intent.
“After the second or third shoot, I began to appreciate who I was. I could even see my mood changes in my facial expressions. The early pictures showed more apprehension, more skepticism. By the third shoot, I felt myself let go more; I could see more of the passion coming through.”
Always keep in mind that the shoot is never about the photographer. Try not to bring up the negative aspects of the subject’s life– always accentuate the positive. “Hold that pose, beautiful, perfect.” But, as Kathy once pointed out, there’s a fine line between positive reinforcement and being condescending. “I was always reminded that I was beautiful, but it never came across as being insincere or as a ploy. It was never so much a physical thing as it was about capturing a mood, an expression or what I was feeling inside. I never felt like a model posing to capture a look. It was more about capturing my feelings at the moment.”
Putting a face to photography as a form of therapy didn’t dawn on me until just shortly after I met my future wife. When we met, she was trying to come to terms with the end of a decade-long marriage to her childhood sweetheart. After catching her husband in a sordid relationship with another woman, she immediately filed for divorce and began the slow, arduous and extremely painful process of recovery. She was embarrassed, emotionally scarred, awash in self-blame and her self-esteem was shattered.
In a story she is fond of telling, she quickly found herself going from the courtroom to the dressing room to save her sanity and try to regain the confidence and self-esteem that she had worked so hard to build over the years. With just the right make-up, a new wardrobe and a new look, she stopped by the “Glamour Shots” studio at the local mall to show herself, as well as family and friends that she could look “œpretty” again, both inside and out.
During the last several years, an increasing number of women who have beaten the odds with breast cancer and other forms of the disease have approached me with “therapeutic” shoots. Similar to rape victims, many women fighting cancer, especially those women who have lost their hair or have had a breast removed, feel a deep-seated need to change their appearance.
At this point, it’s important for the subject to know that beauty is not created, but reinforced. The beauty is there all along. It’s up to the photographer to bring that beauty to the surface for the subject, accentuate the positive and diffuse or hide the negative.
While the majority of my photography over the years has focused on women, men can benefit from the therapeutic elements of photography as well. But, because men tend to hide emotional problems and self-esteem issues closer to the chest in a “machismo” attitude, it is unlikely most men would single out a photographer to help with those issues.
Most men see themselves the way the media and advertising worlds like to portray them “rough and rugged” outdoors types working and playing in the elements– the Marlboro Man image. While men do face similar self-esteem issues with illness, rape, or life-threatening battles with such things as AIDS, the few men I’ve photographed over the years often want to be photographed for entirely different reasons.
The corporate world in the early part of the 21st Century is a totally different world from that of our fathers and grandfathers even 20 years ago. Corporate boardrooms are no longer the exclusive realm of male dominance they once were. Many occupations once considered male dominant such as lawyers, doctors, investment brokers and public relations, now have an increasing representation of women in those fields.
Many men who toil in what they perceive as less than masculine corporate fields, look to be photographed portraying a manlier role. They look to replace the role of “city slicker” with a more rough and rugged “cowboy” persona. Most men approach me because they want to present their “sweetheart” with a gift of themselves in the ultimate”macho” image of turning a wrench under the hood of a car or on horseback as the epitome of a weekend rancher.
Regardless of the subject, a photographer’s best tool when it comes to using photography as a form of therapy is the ability to listen. And heed what you hear. This is when therapy is most effective. Re-building self-esteem and confidence after a sexual assault, the break-up of a marriage, or a fight with breast cancer can seem almost impossible. Building a relationship of trust, providing reassurance and building confidence–making the subject feel whole again can be as important a role for the photographer as snapping that Pulitzer-winning photo on the battlefield.
While photography should never replace a professional therapist for working through the issues following a traumatic experience, it can go a long way to help raise spirits, bring back some of the self-esteem and confidence lost, and help create a positive image that can head the subject in the right direction toward the healing process.
© 1993-2009 Rolando Gomez. All rights reserved. No part of Photographic Therapy may be reproduced without written permission from Rolando Gomez. All images © Rolando Gomez.