A picture paints a thousand words: using photographs in counselling


Like many people, I have a peculiar relationship with cameras and photographs. I recoil when a lens is pointed in my direction and tend to avert my eyes when I’m confronted with the resulting images of myself. There are large gaps in my ‘photo history’, when I simply didn’t have a camera, or when I made sure that I was always behind the lens. Of course, this now leaves me with regret and sadness – though not quite enough to ensure that there are more than a handful of images of me scattered through the thousands I’ve taken of my children.

The photos I own, not just of me but of my life, are a source of low level anxiety: I feel I need to organise them, preserve the printed ones more carefully, and release the others from their digital bondage. As simply enjoying them seems unlikely, perhaps it’s time to change my relationship with my photographic history; to see my photographs not just as a record of terrible haircuts and social awkwardness but to consider my responses to them as I look at them in the present. To shift the emphasis from the content of the image (the when, who, where and often why?) to my emotional response to the image as I view it.

At a simple level, photographs are great memory prompts or in fact can stand in place of memories which have faded. They can remind us of times, places, events, people and relationships; of the context of the photo; the photographer; or for those more interested in the form than the content, the reason for a particular angle or light effect (accidental or otherwise). But memories evoked by photographs are no more fixed or stable than any other form of memory because the viewer brings their present self to the image. The image of the past is always mediated by the viewing self.

This shift of perspective – from content, ‘the story’ – to the interior world of the teller or the viewer, is at the heart of counselling. While counsellors are trained not only to help clients to tell their stories but to elicit meaning from the telling (their non-verbal communication, their metaphors, themes), non-verbal prompts like photographs can be rich source of information and have the potential to unearth feelings and thoughts which are easy to avoid in telling the story. They can elicit layers rich in meaning. For instance, two photographs of the same person taken at the same event may invoke very different aspects of the relationship between the photographer and the subject. In the counselling room, the focus is in part on the relationship the client has with him or herself and looking at a photograph of yourself with a counsellor can be a powerful way to become aware of the way you view yourself. Past and present images looked at together may evoke a sense of loss or of progress, or both at once.  The ‘selfie’ which makes it to social media probably was probably taken with a dozen others that didn’t make the cut. Why one image of the self is more acceptable than another is a rich source of information about self-esteem, about body-image, sense of social status and the self we share with others. If, like me, just looking at any image of yourself can feel embarrassing, or even shameful, perhaps it’s time to press print and have a look at what that means.

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