Images and Echoes: The Power of Photography

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Images of our memories repeat,

like the fading echo of a trumpet in a mountain valley.

                                                                          Joseph Palmar

When you walk down memory lane, what comes to your mind?

With almost every image, there is an echo. With almost every memory, there is an accompanying image.  There may be feelings of warmth, joy, inspiration, nostalgia, regret, or pain.

Recalling pleasant experiences

A faded image of Grandma holding you on her knee brings back the treasured experience of freshly baked cinnamon buns. Your mouth may still water.

The year book photo of Rob whispers, “He was so neat. I wonder what happened to him.” In a moment you relive his awkward words just before your first dance.

A hearty laugh echoes the enjoyment of the mud fight caught on film by your mom who captured the experience rather than being concerned about extra laundry.

The image of the old barn and hay slings recalls the carefree days of summer on the farm.

In the album of the trip to Colorado, the Grand Canyon still brings forth a sense of awe.

Your heart still swells with pride, each time the remembered image occurs of your son’s salute as he accepts his “wings” on the air force tarmac.

Images that echo from the future

Echoes from the past are logical. Echoes from the unknown are understandably mystical. Your future can speak to you through images.

The neighbour’s travelogue, a homemade slide show bespeaks of your yet unformulated plans for a trek abroad.

The unique image on the book cover of a bookstore display deepens your dream of writing that novel that yet evades you.

In his hip waders, Bill is captured dancing with delight as he shows off his prized catch of trout, and in so doing tempts you to organize that long imagined fishing trip.

Learning from images

The use of photography in mental health dates back a century and a half. It has been used by educators, clinicians, and researchers to reveal new understandings of our own  psychological world. We can learn a great deal about ourselves from the photos we take.

To participate in therapeutic photography you don’t need a fancy camera or membership in a camera club. An iPhone is sufficient. The object is not a flawless image. It is noticing how you see the world. Photographs can assist us in organizing our lives as a story. Many wonderful projects demonstrate the contribution of image to understanding families and communities, enhancing self-esteem, intensifying focus, and improving coping skills.

Examples of the benefits of capturing images

The contribution of photography to mental health is well documented. My own experience with people confirms just that.

A single young mom whose severely handicapped son passed away at twelve years of age was mistakenly counselled that her future now had more options. Conventional grief counselling was failing. She found solace by putting together a memoir of photographs of her son along with written reflections.

An adult female was distracted by the obvious distortions caused by her muscular dystrophy. She had a head and shoulders portrait taken that captured her true self.

A project with youngsters used photography to demonstrate that in many ways our brains are cameras. We all take still and video recordings of our life experiences! Being taught the basics of good photography helped these young people recognize that they could soften images in their mind that were captured during trauma. They demonstrated considerable improvement of their processing of difficult images.

At the Hope Foundation, hope deficit clients, were given a disposable camera to take a photograph that represented hope before their next appointment. Even when they reported that they could not find an image of hope, they were occupied all week looking for hope.

Camera and Pen

The roots of the words of “photography” are “to paint with light”.

Combining your camera and your pen can add depth to your journaling experience. Photo journalling is more than illustrating your journal entries with pictures. As you take note of your photographic preferences, you will begin to notice that life comes in shades, and that there are always degrees of light and darkness; that some things are best out of focus, and sharp focus is only necessary under some circumstances.

Recalling images that evoke feelings

Some photos evoke neither memories nor dreams. Rather, it is an emotion that is summoned forth as a response:

A smile comes across your face as you gaze on the unknown laughing child.

Compassion or pity goes out to a homeless man whose despair is recorded by a foreign correspondent in the area hit hardest by a cyclone.

The image of a wolf shot from the air, and not only with a camera, jolts you out of complacency to join the naturalist movement.

The scene hanging over the fireplace in your favourite restaurant nourishes you.

The poster of thousands of owner-built planes at the annual air show tweaks your long buried interest in flying.

At the gallery, it is a gnarled tree that captures your attention.

Walking near the majesty of the waterfall, it is a quiet eddy that tempts you to press the shutter.

At the rodeo, you find yourself scanning the crowd rather than the cowboys for a candid shot.

In a cathedral, one stained glass window speaks to you in a language you cannot decipher. Your soul seems to come home as you gaze upon it. You point and shoot, hoping the light is sufficient.

Time and time again, you find yourself photographing aging architecture that echoes a yearning for which you have no words.

Recalling ambivalent images and echoes

A framed black and white image of the quiet wooded path shrouded in the morning mist awakens the last conversation you shared with a trusted friend before war forever snatched him away.

Your brother’s convocation photograph echoes your failure to complete college. Your absence in the family portrait publicly announces your estrangement.

At the sight of the schoolyard photo located in the museum, you recollect the taunts endured because you spoke English poorly the first couple of years after immigrating.

Recommended reading

Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self-Reflection Using Photography, Art, and Writing. by Graham Gordon Ramsay and Holly Barlow Sweet.

This creative guide to exploring and understanding who you are, what you value, and what you wish to achieve brims with imaginative exercises and examples that use the power of photography, art, and writing as tools for self-discovery. It provides clear and accessible guidance on how to explore different parts of your identity. Exercises are accompanied by searching questions for self-reflection, and are complemented by examples of each exercise to provoke ideas and inspiration. Featuring additional guidance for teachers, counselors, and other professionals running the exercises in group settings, this book offers a dynamic and enjoyable way for you to explore different aspects of your life.

Images and Echoes: Exploring your life with photography and writing edited by Dr. R. Jevne.

This beautifully illustrated hardcopy book captures the explorations of seventeen women who reveal their stories through writing and images. Join them as they delve into the worlds we commonly call family, work, learning, healing, relationships, and spirituality. Explore with them, your inner and outer life as they take you from place to place and from chaos to stability.

Little Book of Contemplative Photography: Seeing with wonder, respect, and humility by Howard Zehr (2005). Published by Good Books, PA.

With this book, Zehr makes a gift to anyone who would like to connect photography to seeing and thinking more deeply. In each chapter he offers a Purpose, a Problem, and an Activity with a camera in order to “practice mindfulness.” The author suggests that the value of experiences will be increased if you journal during or after the exercises.

Photo Essays

Photo essays are a wonderful window into the inner lives of different human experiences.  Here are a couple of my favourites:

I’m not crazy, I just lost my glasses: Portraits and Oral Histories of people who have been in and out of mental institutions

Lonny Shavelson (1986), published by De Novo Press, CA. This book humanizes the experience of “madness” and related treatment, not in abstract jargon but in commonplace language of the wounded.  We experience these people with faces and voices of their own, with stories to tell. It is worth asking your library if they can access a copy for you.

Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences by Howard Zehr.

Long-time advocate of social justice, Zehr suggests that we “tend not to see victims or offenders as real people. We seldom understand crime as it is actually experienced; as a violation of real people by real people.” The author combines photographs and interviews to answer the questions, “What does it mean, for those experiencing it, to be locked up for life, with little or no possibility of ever returning to society?”

Research

An increasing body of research includes photography as a source of data. Studies of the human condition, human experience, and action research have all benefited from the combination of photography and writing.

There is ample evidence that our photography reflects our personal way of seeing the world. As early as 1990, Robert Ziller in Photographing the self: methods of observing personal orientations summarized the use of photography in the study of the self. Since then photography and reflective writing have been used in combination in qualitative studies to explore human experience.

PhotoVoice

PhotoVoice is a participatory action research method that employs photography and group dialogue as a means for marginalized individuals to deepen their understanding of  community issues or concerns.

PhotoVoice believes that everybody should have the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story. They work in partnership all over the world on projects and activities that combine ethical photography and community participation to help deliver positive social change.

Strategy of the month – Free Fall Writing

Photography can be combined with almost any writing strategy. In this newsletter we will use “Free Fall writing”.

Place yourself in a setting which you are comfortable. Get into a space of silence and solitude. Let the inner chatter drift away. If the chatter persists, write it down until it subsides.

Then, sit quietly with the photograph (below) in front of you, preferably with it propped against something so you can look at it and it can look back at you. Wait in silence. Begin writing when a voice seems to speak. It may be yours. It may seem to come from the photograph. It is important to simply let the process unfold.

At some point, the flow of ideas will cease. This free fall writing is best done without fussing about sentence structure, spelling, grammar, or logic.

Photo question of the month

 

What comes to mind when you imagine yourself in this picture?

Please use free-fall writing for your answer.

 

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