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Lessons from a Photo Therapist

Judy Weiser is a Psychologist, Art Therapist, consultant, trainer, University Adjunct Faculty, international lecturer, and author - and one of the earliest pioneers of PhotoTherapy, Therapeutic Photography, Photo-Art-Therapy, VideoTherapy, and other related techniques. Founder and Director of the PhotoTherapy Centre in Vancouver, Canada, she is considered the world authority on the emotional significance of personal photographs. - Cathi Nelson


Lessons from a Photo Therapist

By Judy Weiser

Viewing pictures and telling stories about them is emotionally healthy. It gives us a sense of who we are, where we came from, what has happened in the past that has put us on this path, and gives us a way to do some imagining about where we might be going. Photos point the way to where we might be going even though we don’t realize it yet.

Photos tell our stories without words. We assume that every- one can read the language, but, of course, they can’t. Photos begin the stories through their contents, their meanings, the feelings embedded in them. It is the people who respond to the photos who create the stories and the meanings.

It’s never too soon to share the stories of your family photos with the people around you. Tell the stories about the photos before those memories are lost. You tell the stories and people respond, and you tell them more. It becomes a dialogue. The per- son feels included because you’re telling them the story. If it’s your children, you’re taking the time to tell them the story of your family, where your family came from, what difference your family has made throughout the years.

A photo that looks “ordinary” to us may trigger memories in someone else. Deep feelings emerge from their subconscious, and they go on a journey inside themselves back to the time the photo was taken.

The photo doesn’t tell its secret until someone asks it questions. When someone shows you their photos, they are letting you into their lives

We all assume that when we show someone a photo, that person will see what we see. We will see the same subject of the photo: a dog, car, sunset. We will see the same details. We will not agree on what the photo is about.

Two people look at a photo. They may get different meanings, different stories, different feelings based on what they have brought to that moment—the unconscious filters that they use to make sense of what they are looking at. A mountain scene might be peaceful to one person. To someone who has survived an avalanche, it may bring up horror stories.

The body has memories associated with every moment that is remembered. If you’re looking at a photo from many years ago, it will still trigger smells and feelings; you’ll hear music. You’ll perceive the whole scene that was happening, along with all the feelings and sensory data that was going on at the time.

As you look through your photos, realize that the feelings you are feeling are coming from inside you, which means they’ve always been inside you. It’s simply that the photo has given you the opportunity to know that they are there.

A woman showed me a photo from the 1940s. In it, a group of siblings are lined up and a preteen girl is trying to get into the picture. She’s behind them trying to get in between them. They’re close together, arms around each other’s shoulders. They’d have to step apart to let her in. They did not do that. The woman said, “I think this is why I like to do public lectures and appear in public. I was the ‘barely seen’ child. When I came along, there was a whole bunch of other siblings already, and nobody really knew I was there. This picture is a perfect example of me trying to break through all that and be seen.” To the rest of us, it’s nothing more than a picture of people in a line.

A photo doesn’t hold the meaning. A person looks at it and projects the story onto it based on the feelings and memories and thoughts that it evokes for them.

I have a photo of a young child sitting on a chair looking sort of lonely or sad. I took it because I thought it was a cute picture— little child, big chair. A friend of mine saw it and got very, very still. It took her back to her childhood. She was a cute child and her mother took her to a studio to have her picture taken. It was the kind of studio that sold photos of little kids making funny faces to companies that made calendars. Her mother wasn’t allowed in the room for the photo shoot. The photographer got those faces by giving the children a toy and taking it away so that they would cry. Or he would stick them with pins where it wouldn’t be seen. The mother never knew of the abuse. My friend was too young to tell her. She never liked to have her picture taken, and she didn’t know why, on a conscious level, until she saw that photo of the child.

I have a photo that was taken when I was four years old. I’ve always liked it. I had on a cowboy suit, hands on my hips, look- ing defiantly at the photographer. It didn’t make the family album.

My mother didn’t like it. It was the stubborn me, the independent, in-your-face child that drove her crazy. She wanted me to be a proper young lady. In the photo that went into the album, I was curtsying in a pink satin shirt. That’s the image my mother wanted. One of those significant “0” birthdays, my husband took me on a boat trip to a waterfall. It was a beautiful day. My husband took a picture of me standing on the deck of the boat looking at the waterfall. When I saw the photo, it triggered some- thing in me. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I made it. This is the me I

wanted to be.”

I went back to the picture of me in the cowboy suit and saw the same pose, hands on hips. Straw hat tilted the same way. Next to each other, they’re identical. I saw that the child had turned into the adult that I am, that no matter what happened in between, the child that I was is very much the same.

Had I not kept that photo, had it been lost or burned in a fire or my mother had thrown it out, I would never have understood the feeling I had upon seeing my birthday picture.

When I moved to Canada, I found a bunch of old photos in the attic of the home I moved into. I had no idea who these people were. The people were on a ship and had on old European, ruffled cloth- ing. Someone had kept these photos and treasured them. Through the photos, they explained who they are, where they came from, what the family had survived over time, how that family came to be, why that family is the way that it is. They are that family’s story. The photos by themselves are not the story—you need a storyteller.

Throughout my life, people took pictures. The pictures got stuffed into albums. The album is the view of your family through the eyes and mind and feelings of the person who makes the album. You are looking at your family, perhaps not as it actually was, but as it was viewed by the creator of the album.

I was an only child growing up with a nice middle-class Jewish family. My mother and I would go through the family album. I’d notice that a particular person was no longer in the album, and Mother would tell me that was because he died. There were pictures of my mother’s three brothers. Two of them were twins. Around the time they were twenty years old, there were no more pictures of one of the twins, Sam. I never ask why. I assumed he died or moved to another continent or something.

One day when I was teenager, I came home from school, and my mother said that I had to drive her to Sam’s house.

I was stunned. She was horrified that I had thought Sam had died and asked why I would think that. “You never talk about him; there are no pictures in the family album after he was twenty.”

My mother thought I knew. The family was very strict Jew- ish, and Sam had met and married a woman who wasn’t Jewish. “We gave him a funeral which is what Orthodox Jewish people did when somebody married outside the faith in those days. They are no longer a living person. They are not seen again, they are not talked about again, and their name is not mentioned again.”

But my mother was a good woman and she needed to tell Sam that his twin brother died.

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