Therapeutic Photography

When I tell my story to others I sometimes mention how I overcame years to decades of self hate, self loathing, low esteem, and general dislike for who I thought I was to how I thought I actually looked to the outside world. For readers that do not know until I was about 34 I used to think I looked like the love child of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein’s monster.

I could not look in the mirror, and when photographs were taken of me there were always problems. When I was a pre-teen my photograph from school showed the photographer’s umbrella reflecting in my eyes, it looked like I had mushrooms growing from them, which planted a seed in my head. By my teens I had developed Alopecia universalis, I had no hair anywhere on my body, which combined with bullying and my ultra controlling mother left me feeling like the Victorian freak of old. When in my twenties my eldest brother would continue to point and laugh at me as he had since my earliest days, like many did in the street. When he took a photograph of me, usually for graduation from university, 99% of the time my eyes would be shut; he would find this funny and equally not understand how someone could react that quickly to a flash. I am highly sensitive to many things including light, so yes my eyes seemed to break this rule, and leave me in pieces. I would be called moody as did not want my photograph taken at all, why should I when it always ended up the same way?

By the age of 28 I was having psychodynamic therapy on a weekly basis and had begun using a Fuji camera to take the town I was living in and for fieldwork in Italy. In May 2007 I decided to try take a picture of me with it against some Roman remains, with all the emotions of the past racing to the present combined with thoughts of what do I look like and how do you smile? As my camera was a digital single-lens reflex  (DSLR) I could see immediately the result, which made me jump back hitting the Roman bathhouse with my head and stared at the image it showed for a good five minutes. Was that really what the rest of the world saw when they looked at me? I showed it to one person, my supposed then boyfriend, on my return from Italy. He laughed in my face as he acknowledged it was indeed me. I was scared by what this meant but at the same time I knew the image was of someone deeply unhappy.

It was not until my breakdown and suicide attempt the following year that I began using therapeutic photography in an attempt to see me and begin to repair all the years of hate to perhaps learn to learn to love me for me. Judy Weiser defined therapeutic photography as the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place and no therapist or counsellor needs to be involved. Why use photography, aside from it being one of my hobbies? Photography shows how I actually appeared to others, not the horizontally-reversed image from a mirror or distorted one in my head that I would have drawn. Also, a photograph could let me see parts I would not ordinarily be able to see, e.g. my profile or back, when asleep or in action, or simply being me. Unlike drawings, which are highly subjective, photographs are regarded as non-subjective as fixed in time and space. 

It was not an easy road, even looking back on those early photographs now I can see how far I had to go and come. The first part of me I began to appreciate were my eyes, they are grey-green but appear more grey when depressed, and remembered the old phrase – eyes are the windows to the soul, which I was now beginning to understand. Gradually over the years I saw this woman developing in them that I could relate to and see as the me the world did, she was not a freak or ogre nor was she this glamorous movie star, and you know what I was almost fine with it. 

In 2012, Yoko Ono launched her #smilesfilm, which I decided as I was developing my creative self as much as learning to embrace my full self why not enter a picture of me smiling? I did and in that moment I no longer saw the girl or woman of the past, I saw me in the present moment smiling and content. By March 2014 I had grown so much from that photograph that during the no make up selfie craze for cancer I made a split second decision to post one without my wig as I next to never wear make up as burns my skin if I try and do not see the point in having a chemical mask, I felt like it would be my most honest picture ever and another milestone in the journey. The photograph has 112 likes on my Facebook profile with 142 comments, as well as messages on inbox, e-mail and text, all full of encouragement. I looked at that photograph last month and smiled at what doing that had meant to me then as it does now. 

I do not manipulate images like they appear in magazines, websites and the media, so my photographs are the truest representation of me at that moment. Many of you now reading this take a selfie with a mobile/cellphone several times a day may never understand this journey but others may be where I have been. We are all beautiful in our own way and accepting how we are without resorting to extreme change can be tempting but all they can be band aids over deep wounds. I highly recommend trying therapeutic photography, do not expect results today but explore and learn to love the most amazing person you will ever know, yourself.

© Fi S. J. Brown

 

 

Advertisements

Thirty Six Years

As I approach the thirty sixth anniversary of my birth, I walk up the hill with an observatory that I have climbed many times before, often in the company of a four legged friend of fur and bark. However, today I walk alone to reflect not the lens of a telescope to the stars but my mind on the journey I have taken so far to reach the point I am at today.

As I walk, I look out to a city that became my place of birth after an eleventh hour decision meant I was not born where my journey had biologically started. This city of birth is also the place of many childhood memories that now echo across where I look and make trees sway as feel their vibrations. Many of the trees look on fire, not with passion but as a warning not to dwell on the past for too long. If look close some are shedding their leaves in empathetic tears to the memories they now feel from my memories, good and bad.

I think back to my earliest days, filled with wonder to the world around me and curious to its ways like a newborn puppy yet as wise as an owl in what I seemed to know. I remembered a world that was filled with many colours, but school and family taught me that it was black or white; they replaced the songs of birds and rivers with their own drills and guns; they said I had five senses but I was sure I could pick up at least twice that; and gave me pills to sedate me from asking the questions I wanted answers to, as could or would not answer them. The grown-ups ultimately told of a world of them and us, where the humans ruled over all that l could see and deeper, wider and higher than my eyes could; they were only judged by a man named god, who had created it all and forgave if I did wrong as long as I asked him to.

As I became a grown-up myself I felt a boomerang effect, in whatever I did and wherever I went this city would bring me back. Sadly, I never wanted to be back, in fact quite the opposite, I longed to explore the world like the explorers I read about in childhood books and was not content to do it from a seat any more. At the same time, those around me were settling in “normal” life: getting a job, finding a partner, setting up home and having kids. I felt like an alien in a world to which I did not or would ever belong. Restricted to a tourist visa but not granted citizenship to this world.

Like a circus freak in Victorian times since my earliest teens I wanted to hide away, as my head said I looked like the love child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Hunchback of Notre Dane, an unloveable ogre with growths over my body, and faults greater than San Andreas. I often wondered on making my curtain call, I had enough of being a player in someone else’s movie and being used by those I thought I could trust. When I took what I wanted to be my final bow, I fell not on concrete but autumn leaves, leaving no visible scars but many scratches that I could not itch. Picking the pieces up I knew only I could glue them as there was no one but me there to add glitter or shine.

Much of my life I felt like a donkey among the thoroughbred horses in a race of life, but against the odds I completed a degree, masters two and PhD before I reached the age of 32. When I signed off my final word on my doctorate, I took my own Hippocratic Oath, never to work or study in a laboratory again! The relief felt like I had been given the chance to start again from where I had last saved, which turned out to have been almost twenty years before. So I picked up my pen and let the colours, visuals, sounds, tastes, feelings and smells of that moment release like a series of tributaries forming one big river with each ones strengths and weaknesses.

Now I return my thoughts to today, spinning around on where I stand, thinking where in each direction I could go next without the boomerang pulling me back here. I thought of people that I knew in every one, the special people who’s emails, texts, and phone calls make me smile like I could never have imagined but two years before, for it hurt my face to even try. Whereas now I could share my journey with them, sharing in tears of both pain and laughter. I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I know where I have been. Life has a bittersweet taste but the colours, sounds, visuals and things that belong beyond my wildest dreams are within my touch, so I’m going to take a leap and follow them wherever they may take me next.

© Fi S. J. Brown