The Camera as Psychoanalyst and its role in performative self-discovery and reflection in a therapeutic approach to photography.


The first photographic image as we understand them today, was taken by Joseph Niepce from his upstairs window in 1826, it was a simple image produced by a camera obscura. Through an eight-hour exposure, this simple image of roof tops in the French countryside, cemented in history the beginning of an obsession with capturing the material.







joseph Niepce


Soon after this, the first self-portrait as we know it, was taken by Robert Cornelius Outside his studio, in October 1839, the exposure required him to sit still for 10 – 15 minutes, the result was a ghostly image of a man confronting a camera on his own terms for the first time in history, his look is quizzical and uncertain, a degree of curiosity and distrust on his face as if he is in interrogation.


Robert Cornelius


Photography moved quick, nasty chemicals were replaced with easy carry film, easy carry film was replaced with digital sensors, the library of photographic books were replaced with digital images on the internet, in phones, in the cloud, but for all its advancements and improvements, photography has stayed true to its original nature as a form of mimetic art, and not just a form of mimetic art but THE form of mimetic art.

Photography as a form of contemporary art is a fairly new idea in the history of art, and still somewhat hugely misunderstood and not tolerated by the masses of the modern world, photography still is largely used to collect images that we deem desirable from the world around us, and many people see photographic art as a failure to master the camera, or as a non – viable way to make a living in the photographic world, art photographers are still very much scoffed at, having been presented with this myself whilst at my local photography lab, delivering film, the developer said to me “why do they teach all that artsy fartsy stuff? You can’t make a living from that”.

Maybe this man is missing the point entirely, and maybe we have all treated photography with a triviality that has damaged it for its existence so far, this proposal and argument, is intended to reinforce photography, as a powerful tool for therapeutic use, but also to question what the camera’s role is in this “therapeutic environment” do our rituals require a witness for validity? And does the camera fill this role as witness? Or do we require more? To what extent can we learn from images of ourselves? What is to be gained by peering into a frozen mirror image of the self? How does the photographic image change our rituals from explosive gestures, to an understandable language for study and understanding? And finally, how can this help us?


Photography as performance art

“Perhaps expression is more direct and immediate than representation” – Nelson Goodman

With these questions in mind, I decided to begin with the obvious step, of approaching those working in the field of photography and performance, my first questions were sent over to Olivier De Sagazan.

Olivier De Sagazan


Olivier De Sagazan is a French, Sculptor,  artist and photographer, his work creates visual stories, often depicting the struggling artist, and involves the use of sculptural materials such as clay, his performances are captured via camera and paintings, taking an interest in his approach to using his camera I asked him a series of questions to which he replied:

“Any artistic gesture is a necessity; its impediment will produce a frustration. Art is for me both a way to try to understand who I am and at the same time a way to share with others my questions. This research and sharing is vital for me. My life only makes sense through this research”


Olivier’s choice of words here are incredibly interesting and his decision to refer to his performances as research has piqued my interest, research of the self? He elaborated further;

“The video capture of my performances has a key role in the practice of my art. No video will ever replace the live performance. In the live performance, we are witnessing something unique that has not yet taken place, especially since a performance plays a lot with chance. In an active performance, we witness something live, something unique like in real life and that’s why I’m going more and more to the side of living arts. When we capture our performance (Photographically) we are facing something like a painting: here something has happened, it is a trace of a presence a form of relic, it is very beautiful, but in the performance in the presence of the public, there is both this “here and now” and this “with you” and so is doubly moving, the presence of oneself with oneself, this is a flow in others. A feeling that suddenly escapes solitude and produces a form of intimate sharing. Still, the capture is an indispensable trace to allow others to see and to the artist also become aware of what he gives”


Olivier has been helpful here and incredibly open in regards to his use of performance and the images captured, I have picked two points of interest from his sentences, the first being his idea of the photographic evidence of his performances as research and the second his choice to speak about how they are treated like paintings. Artists are known to create paintings with the intention of capturing, sharing and showing emotions, we often speak of paintings as emotive, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are known for their emotional power and many other painters through history have tried successfully and unsuccessfully to capture emotion in their paintings, we connect with most artistic methods of expression because of their emotional power.

So what emotional power if any, do our images hold when we have packed up after our performance and we are viewing the images? a very interesting chapter in Nelson Goodman’s philosophical discussion “Languages of Art” entitled “the sound of pictures” discusses expression through art, and how expression is received, when it is presented as a representation, he ponders that “perhaps, expression is more immediate than representation” (pg.47), the immediacy and power of expression is under no doubt when we discuss our performances in action, and this is, as Olivier explained beforehand, why he is moving more towards live performances for his audiences, but do we need immediacy in research?

Artists have long used research in their work to develop idea’s, works and techniques, this research is always done from the perspective of a voyeur looking in and seeing, taking what we can, then moving forwards, this process can be applied to our images when considering research of the self.


A quiet Personal Therapy

“Art was more than just representation, it was more a trip into the mind, and what you could see in there, and how you could materialise it in the form of visual experience.” – George Condo

Photo Therapy is not a new term. Coined in the 1980’s by photographer Jo Spence and Rosy Martin, Spence began this method of personal communication and reflection in response to her breast cancer, capturing self-portraits of her battles and explorations of alternative methods of healing, her images were what we could call “Deadpan” photography, unashamedly laying everything bare, for the artist and viewer to see, but what was Spence looking for in her images? What was this visual language that she found so helpful? And how would we recognise and interpret it?


Jo Spence


For my research at MFA, I began a series of images entitled “Father please”, the first image of the series is a self-portrait, capturing me with a t shirt gifted to me by my absent father, over my head and face, obscuring me as a person and leaving the object of a failed relationship on pedestal almost, taking precedent over the person in the relationship, In the image I am at the mercy of the scenario, I have no control over how this relationship is playing out. 





Arron Hansford


Of course, I had control. I placed the t shirt over my head, I set the flashgun and I took the image, the interesting thing that I find about this image, is when I did it, I did not know why! I strongly remember shooting this image, and the thought pattern that was going through my head at the time, was that “This seemed like the instinctual step to make” I put the t shirt on my head and I took the image, it was as quick as that. It was only after the image was developed and processed, that I realised what I was looking at, this was obviously a bold statement, made in frustration and through a sense of loss and confusion! At the time I was sleeping on my mums living room, I had nowhere else to stay, soon after I was very briefly homeless, at the time I needed my father’s help, but at the time I was also massively unaware of this, this image was an act of psychoanalysis from my camera, my camera was very openly "Playing" Therapist.

Like me, Jo spence was conscious when she stood in front of her camera and waited for the shutter to click, and like me she was very much there, but perhaps, also like me, she was not all there, a part of her, was at the camera’s discretion, like a psychoanalyst, the camera can only diagnose what it sees, and then it has the opportunity to share it with its patient.

But how do we study the delivered message, how do we understand decipher and interpret the semiotics that the camera has intended for us? Is it simply a case of Baade – Meinhof phenomenon perhaps, or synchronicity? If the gesture is not always intended, then how does the image appear and how does it capture the emotions and meanings that it does?

With these questions in mind I have begun a discourse with photographer and photo-therapist, Rosy Martin. Rosy Martin worked on pioneering the idea of photo-therapy with jo spence in the 1980’s I am hoping that through further communication with her I will be able to shine further light on these questions, interestingly, during my research I found a quote by Jo Spence that seems to delve into the questions I have raised regarding access to the information granted by our photography and the permission granted by it to read the information within.

“The photographer/therapist creates an atmosphere of encouragement, nurturance and permission-giving, in which clients are offered the possibility of directing and controlling this non-judgmental mirroring. The giving back of the look is made manifest through the photographs that are produced”

This quotes reads like guidelines for the preparation of a therapeutic space, which we will go into at a further date… however it also reads like guidelines for a therapist/Patient scenario, what happens when we strip away the barrier between the patient/therapist and we are left with ourselves and the camera? The camera as therapist.


The Camera as therapist

“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise” – Sigmund Freud

In the mid-20th century Jo spence and Rosy Martin began a series of collaborative images from a school of photography which they named “Photo Therapy” the images were aimed at childhood trauma and current transitional periods (Jo Spence was soon diagnosed with Cancer) drawing on techniques learned from co-counselling, psychodrama and a reframing technique borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming therapy. 


Spence and collaborator Rosy Martin began developing their own form of photo therapy. In a challenge to the orthodox idea of fixity within portraiture, Photo therapy presented new forms of representation which allowed for multiple, fragmented selves.

Martin and Spence created a personal therapy tool, producing work that allowed the subject to control their image and represent their own difficult and often previously unexpressed feelings and ideas. Working collaboratively and taking it in turns, the person in front of the camera was both subject and author of the image. In a number of different sessions, Spence worked through a number of personal histories and traumas such as going into hospital and her feelings of being infantilised; her relationship with her mother and feelings of abandonment while she was evacuated during the war and her emotional roots to patterns of eating. This series further extended Spence’s interrogation and decoding of sexuality, family, and class. Two elements make up photo therapy, photography and therapy.




Jo Spence and Rosey Martin

The question as to why photography was invented, bothers me. I can only guess that our desire to fix images came from our need to freeze the fleeting moments of the world around us, perhaps not intentionally as a purely aesthetic endeavour to begin with, but always with the intention of retrospection.

Art, Photography. Tuition.

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