Creative Thinking Tools Creativity Essay Opinion Reviewing Practice Uncategorized

Reconstituting Memory

Deriv­ing Solace through Ther­a­peu­tic Pho­tog­ra­phy


How can day­dreams, the place of refuge and cre­ativ­i­ty, turn against us, becom­ing halls of hor­rors that con­sume and drag the self into self-loathing and depres­sion? What are the root caus­es of these changes and how can artis­tic prac­tice be used to repair the injured mind?

What is mem­o­ry? And how do the trau­mas of the past cre­ate so much tur­bu­lence in the present? Can the mem­o­ries of the past be recon­sti­tut­ed in the present to qui­et them in the future? What role does nar­ra­tive play in mem­o­ry and in the self? And are there tools avail­able, which can improve both men­tal and phys­i­cal health?

Work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er in the 1970’s Jo Spence would have had no idea how impor­tant pho­tog­ra­phy would become in her life, or in the lives of those who would ulti­mate­ly be impact­ed by her work. Are there par­al­lels that can be drawn between the prac­tice of Spence and the prac­tice of Louise Bour­geois con­sid­er­ing how dif­fer­ent both their work and trau­mas appear to be?

Judy Weiser’s and Del Loewenthal’s ground break­ing research into Pho­toTher­a­py and Ther­a­peu­tic Pho­tog­ra­phy became the start­ing point in the devel­op­ment of research and under­stand­ing in the nuanced ter­mi­nolo­gies that dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the dif­fer­ent forms of Art Ther­a­pies. In a field filled with so many unique prac­tices, research has been focused on attempt­ing to divine a core set of prac­tices that could serve as a work­ing mod­el or toolk­it, if so, could the toolk­it be used to sus­tain an artist who is cur­rent­ly work­ing out­side the guid­ance of a ther­a­pist?   

The Daydream

Out­side in a café a group of peo­ple share a con­ver­sa­tion over a cof­fee and a tapa. There are moments of seri­ous dis­cus­sion and laugh­ter as the con­ver­sa­tion drifts organ­i­cal­ly between rela­tion­ships, work and fam­i­ly. As lull wash­es across the group one of the men’s faces stirs, abrupt­ly sad and frus­trat­ed, his mind drifts away from the table. The group laughs, recov­er­ing his atten­tion, he too laughs and picks back up in the con­ver­sa­tion with his asso­ciates.

In social inter­ac­tions, the con­scious­ness is split in mul­ti­ple direc­tions both pas­sive and active. Hope­ful­ly, to the peo­ple we are chat­ting with, we are par­tak­ing in the con­ver­sa­tion, active­ly lis­ten­ing and dri­ving the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward rather than wait­ing for our turn to speak. How­ev­er, inter­nal­ly, a range of con­scious and sub­con­scious moti­va­tions are at play caus­ing dis­trac­tion and occa­sion­al­ly tak­ing us away to anoth­er world alto­geth­er.

Day­dreams can be cre­ative places for the mind to wan­der, plan and make sense of the world before snap­ping back to the sit­u­a­tion at hand. How­ev­er, if our men­tal health dete­ri­o­rates, these once pleas­ant encoun­ters with the uncon­scious become halls of regret and guilt, where duelling mono­logues wage hypo­thet­i­cal wars, fill­ing every inat­ten­tive moment with malaise. Social inter­ac­tions even­tu­al­ly become chal­leng­ing as these day­dreams become more fre­quent and intru­sive, with time becom­ing the new nor­mal, from which social inter­ac­tions dis­tract.

Day­dream­ing is con­ceived as ‘non­work­ing thought that is either spon­ta­neous or fan­ci­ful’ and it is con­sid­ered the default of the mind. As men­tal base­line, day­dream­ing is a fre­quent phe­nom­e­non. Esti­mates sug­gest that we spend 30–50% of our men­tal activ­i­ty dur­ing wak­ing hours in thoughts that are nei­ther relat­ed to what we are doing at that moment nor to the imme­di­ate sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment. Day­dream­ing, espe­cial­ly if char­ac­ter­ized by neg­a­tive cog­ni­tions, has been asso­ci­at­ed with symp­toms of psy­chopathol­o­gy, such as depres­sion. Fur­ther­more, in a lab­o­ra­to­ry set­ting, indi­vid­u­als with sub­clin­i­cal lev­els of depres­sion exhib­it­ed more acces­si­ble peri­ods of mind­wan­der­ing while encod­ing ver­bal mate­r­i­al, greater atten­tion­al con­trol fail­ures and high­er phys­i­o­log­i­cal response than euthymic indi­vid­u­als. Lev­els of depres­sive symp­toms cor­re­lat­ed only with the rate of episodes of day­dream­ing that occurred with­out the par­tic­i­pants’ aware­ness of being off task (e.g., I “Zoned Out”) but not with those episodes the par­tic­i­pant was aware of (e.g., “tuned out”) (Mar­che­t­ti, Vande Putte, Koster, 2014).

Mar­che­t­ti et al. (2012) showed that indi­vid­u­als’ lev­els of depres­sive symp­toms were not cor­re­lat­ed with day­dream­ing, but the for­mer mod­er­at­ed the lat­er in pre­dict­ing the acces­si­bil­i­ty of neg­a­tive think­ing. They pro­posed a com­pre­hen­sive mod­el that could explain the depres­so­genic role of day­dream­ing via con­tri­bu­tion of mul­ti­ple cog­ni­tive risk fac­tors, such as rumi­na­tion, and that high­er lev­els of inter­nal focus dur­ing rest­ing state pre­dict­ed increased lev­els of rumi­na­tion that would explain a tem­po­rary wors­en­ing in mood. Rumi­na­tion, in turn, has been con­sis­tent­ly found to enhance depres­sive symp­toms. The reduced pro­cess­ing of exter­nal dis­trac­tions could aug­ment repet­i­tive think­ing (Mar­che­t­ti, Vande Putte, Koster, 2014).

Day­dream­ing seems to be a phe­nom­e­non dur­ing which eval­u­a­tive and judg­men­tal self-ref­er­en­tial think­ing occurs and although it is focused on the day­dream­ers nar­ra­tive self (e.g. action, feel­ings, past events, etc.), it is not asso­ci­at­ed with any imme­di­ate ben­e­fi­cial out­come, rather it is the ide­al con­di­tion for detri­men­tal rumi­na­tive self-focus to occur. In the cit­ed study it was found that lev­els of day­dream­ing and depres­sive symp­toms were sta­tis­ti­cal­ly inde­pen­dent, though day­dream­ing did pre­dict depres­sive out­comes, but only to the extent which self-focus and brood­ing were involved too. Appar­ent­ly, both self-focus and mal­adap­tive rumi­na­tion were nec­es­sary com­po­nents for day­dream­ing to impact on depres­sive symp­toms (Mar­che­t­ti, Vande Putte, Koster, 2014).

As the repet­i­tive nar­ra­tives of the dark rumi­na­tions con­sume the once safe cor­ners of con­scious­ness, the self-gen­er­at­ed thoughts asso­ci­at­ed with the default mode of the mind take on the man­tle of fear, suf­fo­cat­ing the sufferer’s abil­i­ty to suc­cess­ful­ly com­plete every­day tasks. Going to pick up the kids quick­ly dis­solves into a high blood-pres­sure, high heartrate pan­ic attack. Psy­chol­o­gists rec­om­mend a dai­ly dose of exer­cise as part of a healthy men­tal-health rou­tine, yet going for a walk is the per­fect envi­ron­ment for the mal­formed day­dream. This prob­lem cre­ates an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the design of an appro­pri­ate ther­a­peu­tic inter­ven­tion.

Photography as Therapy

In a ther­a­py con­text, tra­di­tion­al art (draw­ing, paint­ing, sculpt­ing, et al.) and pho­tog­ra­phy can be seen in the same way. They are both cat­a­lysts for con­ver­sa­tion with­in which a ther­a­pist can encour­age their patient to engage in a con­ver­sa­tion that would oth­er­wise not take place in the con­text of tra­di­tion­al talk­ing ther­a­pies. From this point, tra­di­tion­al art and pho­tog­ra­phy tend to diverge in both impor­tant and inter­est­ing ways beyond the why you made this pic­ture or paint­ed this paint­ing.

Pho­tographs offer up a slip­pery sur­face of mean­ings to reflect upon and project onto, and con­tain a myr­i­ad of latent nar­ra­tives.

(Mar­tin, 2013).

While the mak­ing of art can cer­tain­ly be “ther­a­peu­tic” (heal­ing) for those doing it, can this be accu­rate­ly called “ther­a­py” if there is no end-part of the ses­sion where it is de-briefed so that a cog­ni­tive-con­scious anchor­ing can be achieved?” The art-as-ther­a­py approach of Ther­a­peu­tic Pho­to-Art-Activ­i­ties is some­what dif­fer­ent to the art-dur­ing-ther­a­py approach of Pho­toTher­a­py or Art-Ther­a­py in that it does not require but can ben­e­fit from “the help of a ther­a­pist to help “fin­ish” what has come to light” (Weis­er, 2014).

Photography’s rela­tion­ship with mem­o­ry and the real gives it a unique char­ac­ter­is­tic when com­pared with tra­di­tion­al art. Barthes’ dis­course around the pho­to­graph of his moth­er or Thomas Struth’s col­lec­tion of fam­i­ly pho­tographs lean on the same Freudi­an foun­da­tions of fam­i­ly and parental rela­tion­ships. In a ther­a­py set­ting the client’s fam­i­ly pho­tographs cre­ate a door­way to the explo­ration of these issues and relat­ed com­plex­i­ties. How­ev­er, in the case of Struth, the fam­i­ly pho­to­graph project’s gen­e­sis was “Ingo Hart­mann, a psy­cho­an­a­lyst work­ing in Düs­sel­dorf who became an impor­tant friend and men­tor of Struth’s”. Hart­mann occa­sion­al­ly asked new patients to bring some of their own fam­i­ly pho­tographs as a means of explor­ing how they might rep­re­sent cer­tain dynam­ics with­in their fam­i­ly life. Struth cre­at­ed prints, all in the same for­mat and size, so that they could func­tion bet­ter as a tool for com­par­a­tive analy­sis. “We were hop­ing to retrieve and present what was leg­i­ble and under­stand­able, to see what nar­ra­tives about fam­i­ly life could be recon­struct­ed from this evi­dence” (Struth, 2010).

The col­lec­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of pho­to­graph­ic imagery with­in the con­text of ther­a­py has cre­at­ed a sit­u­a­tion where pho­tographs can be used as an ice­break­er, to trig­ger emo­tion and to explore child­hood and fam­i­ly dynam­ics. Like a deck of cards, pho­tographs can be shuf­fled, grouped, or sin­gled out to lead the con­ver­sa­tion even though they were not cre­at­ed by or with the sub­ject of the ther­a­py. The cre­ation of pho­to­graph­ic images with­in the con­text of a ther­a­py ses­sion has been rare due to the rel­a­tive cost of equip­ment and train­ing. Ther­a­pists would loan out point-and-shoot cam­eras to par­tic­i­pants with a brief to doc­u­ment their every­day lives. Pho­tographs would then be print­ed and edit­ed down to man­age­able num­ber, before con­tin­u­ing with the relat­ed ther­a­pies. This has changed how­ev­er since the pro­lif­er­a­tion of cam­eras on mobile devices, which will, over time, lead to a greater pro­lif­er­a­tion of relat­ed research

Art/Photographic ther­a­pies are based on trust and often hold frag­ile truths that are sen­si­tive and deeply per­son­al. The ther­a­peu­tic process needs to be com­plet­ed before any of the work can be shared. Con­se­quent­ly, almost all the works remain pri­vate. For the artist, the desire to com­mu­ni­cate uni­ver­sal ele­ments of the human con­di­tion, push­es them for­ward. “We chose to exhib­it some key images from our prac­tice, because we want­ed to share these ideas. The cho­sen images speak to the social and cul­tur­al for­ma­tions of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and can acti­vate a per­son­al or col­lec­tive mem­o­ry for the spec­ta­tor.” (Mar­tin, 2013).

Jo Spence

I used my cam­era as a third eye, almost as a sep­a­rate part of me, which was ever watch­ful, ana­lyt­i­cal and crit­i­cal yet remain­ing attached to the emo­tion­al and fright­en­ing expe­ri­ences I was under­go­ing – my cam­era must shoot on auto pilot at these times I ques­tion the pho­tographs lat­er.

(Spence, quot­ed in Den­nett, 2011)

Spence, who was diag­nosed with breast can­cer in 1982, was not a first-time pho­tog­ra­ph­er, hav­ing had a suc­cess­ful career in por­trai­ture and becom­ing well known in the 1970’s for her explo­rations of fam­i­ly and self-image. The fam­i­ly albums that she inher­it­ed led her to argue for an expand­ed ver­sion of the fam­i­ly album – “one through which we can pass on the broad­er pic­ture of our lives”, after find­ing that not only did she have only one pho­to­graph of her father at work but none of her moth­er out­side of the usu­al cel­e­bra­to­ry events (Den­nett, 2011). At the time of her diag­no­sis treat­ment was lim­it­ed to surg­eries and drugs with coun­sel­ing unavail­able due to cut­backs in her region. Not hav­ing enough mon­ey to explore more expen­sive options she was forced to cre­ate “her own inde­pen­dent can­cer sur­vival pro­gramme assist­ed by the Bris­tol Can­cer Cen­tre” (Den­nett, 2011).

The Body is the Hero. Spence, Den­net, 1983

The pho­to­graph should serve as a jump­ing off point to direct us to real life sit­u­a­tions exist­ing out­side the pho­to­graph­ic frame. Our Pho­tographs should present the view­er with ques­tions, the work we do will only have a final ‘real­i­ty effect’ when it func­tions as an are­na for dis­cus­sion and, more impor­tant­ly, acts as a call to action.

(Spence, quot­ed in Den­nett, 2011)

The devel­op­ment of Spence’s strate­gies came about when she was intro­duced to the idea of “using pho­tos as an aid to med­i­ta­tion and stress con­trol by a fel­low can­cer patient who was explor­ing visu­al­iza­tion and med­i­ta­tion as part of a treat­ment pro­to­col based upon the ‘direct­ed day­dream’ method of men­tal imag­ing”. She lat­er com­bined pho­tog­ra­phy with a series of ill­ness diaries and, over time, incor­po­rat­ed method­olo­gies from Dr Ira Pragoff’s pio­neer­ing Inten­sive Jour­nal method. Through­out her ill­ness­es and recov­er­ies Spence active­ly researched, attend­ed work­shops and, with the help of a trained ther­a­pist, devel­oped a com­plex series of pat­terns through which she cre­at­ed her work (Den­nett, 2011).

Pho­tog­ra­phy trans­forms a liv­ing scene into a piece of two-dimen­sion­al graph­ic art – a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the moment but drained of all life, sound and smell – an abstrac­tion, a frag­ment of the moment but unlike our ephemer­al mem­o­ry it can be shared. It is a phys­i­cal object we can hold it, pass round, dis­cuss and archive for pos­ter­i­ty. So I see Pho­tog­ra­phy as a mag­i­cal process.

(Spence, quot­ed in Den­nett, 2011)

Rosy Mar­tin began col­lab­o­rat­ing with Spence in 1983 cre­at­ing pho­to­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions through pho­to­graph­ic re-enact­ments. Mar­tin met Spence while attend­ing a series of co-coun­selling train­ing cours­es. “We worked togeth­er in an exper­i­men­tal and cre­ative way and main­tained the ther­a­peu­tic frame­work to work through the emo­tions that mak­ing and view­ing these images released. We soon realised that we had dis­cov­ered a very pow­er­ful tech­nique” (Mar­tin, 2013). They worked togeth­er to look behind the “screen mem­o­ries”, which Freud referred to as “those fixed images from child­hood that haunt each indi­vid­ual” (Bate, 2010). For Mar­tin (2013) and Spence screen mem­o­ries rep­re­sent­ed the “sim­pli­fi­ca­tions and myths of oth­ers, too long accept­ed as our his­to­ries […] explor­ing the self as a series of fic­tions”.

Louise Bourgeois

The chil­dren grabbed him [the father] and put him on the table. And he became the food. They took him apart, dis­mem­bered him. Ate him up. And so he was liquidated…the same way he liq­ui­dat­ed his chil­dren. The sculp­ture rep­re­sents both a table and a bed .

(Bour­geois, cit­ed in Bergstrom-Katz, 2009)

Louise Bour­geois “was moti­vat­ed by emo­tion­al strug­gles and she came up with visu­al imagery that would help her deal with these emo­tion­al strug­gles” (Wye, 2017). Bour­geois had been in inten­sive psy­cho­analy­sis for many years (1952–1985), a fact that she had denied through­out her career until 2004, when her long-time assis­tant Jer­ry Gorovoy found a box of papers in the back of a clos­et and brought them to her atten­tion. A sec­ond box was dis­cov­ered in 2010. In all, these box­es con­tained near­ly a thou­sand sheets of writ­ings that Bour­geois had made dur­ing her psy­cho­analy­sis. After they were found, she reen­gaged with them, ask­ing that they be read aloud to her. Since that time, about a hun­dred exam­ples have been made avail­able, in the two-vol­ume book titled “The Return of the Repressed” (Wye, 2017).

The Destruc­tion of the Father. Bour­geois 1974

I need mem­o­ries. They are my doc­u­ments. I keep watch over them. They are my provo­ca­cy and I am intense­ly jeal­ous of them.

(Louise Bour­geois, Cit­ed in Oliveira, 2017).

Did psy­cho­analy­sis help her? No, it didn’t. She nev­er sought ther­a­peu­tic help or looked to psy­cho­analy­sis for a cure. So, what did she get? Bour­geois, with her ana­lyst Hen­ry Lowen­feld, cre­at­ed Louise’s analy­sis, what could be described as a train­ing analy­sis, though not one to become a psychoanalyst—a thought she did enter­tain once—but one to be an artist. Her clin­i­cal devel­op­ment and train­ing was inten­sive and life-long. Her “self” or “auto” analy­sis could only have come about with this exten­sive expe­ri­ence. Psy­cho­an­a­lysts and artists both work with uncon­scious process­es, Louise kept all her trau­mat­ic sen­sa­tions alive to find the right visu­al, not ver­bal, cure through her work. She kept them alive in this way because it was who she was as an artist. Art made her sane but it did not end her ago­nies, she need­ed them for her art. Through this and the auto-trauma­ti­za­tion process, Louise opened her­self up to all the fragili­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with trau­ma and its mem­o­ry. She, delib­er­ate­ly, went into and stayed with­in the trau­ma. She could con­trol some aspects like the impe­tus for the work, but not oth­ers, like the insom­nia or the rages, the lat­ter of which she became well known for (Mitchell, 2017. Appear­ing in Wye, 2017).

Peo­ple in despair do not make art. Bour­geois fal­low peri­od, when she was in intense analy­sis, was con­nect­ed to depres­sion. She may not have been cured by her analy­sis, but I do believe it helped her to iden­ti­fy her anger and cre­ate a para­ble to explain her volatile feel­ings” (Hustvedt, 2017. Appear­ing in Wye, 2017). As Bour­geois put it “A steady rage can be pro­duc­tive” (Bour­geois, quot­ed by Hustvedt, 2017).

She saw the func­tion of her art as “her tool of sur­vival and her guar­an­tee of san­i­ty” (Wye, 2017). When asked about the diver­si­ty of her work and the ref­er­ence to one work devel­op­ing after anoth­er she explained “I under­stand myself bet­ter and bet­ter”. Through her research and under­stand­ing of psy­cho­analy­sis she cre­at­ed a mythol­o­gy in her work of “jeal­ousy, sex and betray­al, guar­an­teed to attract atten­tion as a good sto­ry and pro­vide a screen for what she want­ed to remain hid­den. The appear­ance of telling can be a con­ve­nient mask” (Hustvedt, 2017. Appear­ing in Wye, 2017).

In order to lib­er­ate myself from the past I have to recon­struct it. Pon­der about it. Make a stat­ue out of it and get rid of it. Through mak­ing sculp­ture I am able to for­get it after­wards. I have paid my debt to the past and I am lib­er­at­ed

(Louise Bour­geois, cit­ed in Hard­ing, 2013).

Bour­geois knew that the female artist who embraces the body, emo­tion and auto­bi­og­ra­phy in her work is usu­al­ly den­i­grat­ed. “[H]er art’s provoca­tive, barefaced con­tent — per­son­al, con­fes­sion­al, bit­ter, fem­i­nist, nur­tur­ing, overt­ly sex­u­al, and con­fronta­tion­al — hits you with mal­let force, its sub­ject mat­ter long ring­ing both between your legs and between your ears. […] The sto­ry of her life feels like an excuse for art that amounts to lit­tle more than ther­a­peu­tic exor­cism” (Esplund, 2008). Bour­geois not being a pho­tog­ra­ph­er allows us to abstract the process from the work through com­par­i­son. The process­es of Spence and Bour­geois are sim­i­lar yet com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. They both, iden­ti­fy the trau­ma, devel­op an under­stand­ing of it, make some­thing from it and com­mu­ni­cate the result in a pub­lic forum. Where the two process­es diverge is in their cho­sen media and meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  The draw­ing, print-mak­ing and sculp­ture pre­ferred by Bour­geois are slow medi­ums. The con­ver­sa­tion between a draw­ing and the thing been drawn opens a win­dow for dia­logue between the con­scious and the uncon­scious. The process of reflec­tion breath­ing through­out the process, the nar­ra­tive for which being sealed through reflec­tive writ­ing. The same is also equal­ly true for sculp­ture and print-mak­ing, where the process­es are also slow and evo­lu­tion­ary. The deci­sive moment of pho­tog­ra­phy trends toward the fast, yet Spence devel­oped a process of mir­ror ther­a­py, stag­ing and con­struc­tion that slowed the process, cre­at­ing a space for reflec­tion to get a foothold with­in the are­na of mak­ing a pho­to­graph, bal­anc­ing out the per­ceived gaps between tra­di­tion­al art and pho­tog­ra­phy. Bourgeois’s work eludes to a way of being through sug­ges­tion and the fram­ing of text, which serves as an aside. This com­mu­ni­cates in a dif­fer­ent way to that of Spence, whose work per­forms direct­ly, draw­ing atten­tion to the sub­ject, the text rein­forc­ing the mes­sage of the pho­to­graph­ic image. What is insep­a­ra­ble in process­es of the two artists is the posi­tion of mem­o­ry as a cat­a­lyst for ignit­ing their prac­tice. 


It can be easy to talk about and remem­ber some­thing that hap­pened when we were, eleven, for instance. It is what is referred to as an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal expe­ri­ence that has, over time, become a nar­ra­tive in life. Much ear­li­er, trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences may not even be imprint­ed in auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ry, which is explic­it mem­o­ry. In this area, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy has val­i­dat­ed Freud, who argued that there is no orig­i­nal mem­o­ry. In remem­ber­ing, we do not ever retrieve an orig­i­nal mem­o­ry, instead, what we retrieve is the last time we checked that mem­o­ry out. Mem­o­ries are recon­sol­i­dat­ed at a mol­e­c­u­lar lev­el and when they are recon­sol­i­dat­ed they are done so by emo­tion. As a result, what we remem­ber from our child­hood are emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful mem­o­ries. Mem­o­ries that are not part of auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ries (trau­ma) may not be explic­it­ly remem­bered, but are remem­bered in the body, man­i­fest­ing for exam­ple as flash­backs. This type of mem­o­ry may occa­sion­al­ly have a visu­al com­po­nent, but typ­i­cal­ly no words, as they are imprint­ed on anoth­er part of the brain that is not hip­pocam­pal mem­o­ry (Hustvedt, 2017. Appear­ing in Wye, 2017). “The the­o­ry of mem­o­ry is both the place of the past com­ing into the future, but also the future reshap­ing our mem­o­ry” (Mitchell, 2017. Appear­ing in Wye, 2017).

This idea that there is no orig­i­nal mem­o­ry, that the mem­o­ry we recall is an arte­fact of the last time it was retrieved, flows into the inter­ac­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy and mem­o­ry. Though of the past, “that-has-been”, pho­tog­ra­phy can­not bring the past to mem­o­ry because any human expe­ri­ence, even mem­o­ry, always hap­pens in the present, where para­dox­i­cal­ly we expe­ri­ence the pres­ence of the past. The decod­ing upon which the pho­to­graph is depen­dant no longer belongs to the image or the past, but to the present, where it is expe­ri­enced (Mar­tins, 2017). This view advances the opin­ion of Susan Son­tag in “On Pho­tog­ra­phy”, where, “A pho­to­graph pass­es for incon­tro­vert­ible proof that a giv­en thing hap­pened. The pic­ture may dis­tort; but there is always a pre­sump­tion that some­thing exists, or did exist, which is like what is in the pic­ture” (1977). With pho­tographs, mem­o­ry is both fixed and flu­id. As sites of mem­o­ry, pho­to­graph­ic images do not offer a view on his­to­ry, but, as mne­mic devices, are per­cep­tu­al phe­nom­e­na upon which a his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion may be con­struct­ed (Bate, 2010).

The pho­to­graph joins in the poet­ic dance of evolv­ing mem­o­ry as its con­text advances over time, in the hands of the imag­i­na­tion. “Mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion do not admit dis­so­ci­a­tions, and if for some rea­son the two col­lide, imag­i­na­tion wins because, as stat­ed by Durand, the Imag­i­nary is insen­si­tive to ratio­nal rebut­tal. By demand­ing that the mate­r­i­al image and the men­tal image coin­cide, the imag­i­nary uses pho­tog­ra­phy as a cru­cible in which, mem­o­ries (past) and desires (future) are alchem­i­cal­ly merged. The col­lec­tive imag­i­nary guides the con­struc­tion of mem­o­ry in the direc­tion of its desires” (Mar­tins, 2017). Image and mem­o­ry have been used by nation states and reli­gious organ­i­sa­tions for mil­len­nia in the cre­ation of memo­ri­als to evoke mem­o­ries of past events, whose nar­ra­tives have been cre­at­ed and placed in mem­o­ry through indoc­tri­na­tion or edu­ca­tion. These cul­tur­al mem­o­ries are derived to aid the cre­ation of a com­mon belief sys­tem, from which com­mu­ni­ties, coun­tries and civil­i­sa­tions can relate and grow. The intro­duc­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy cre­at­ed both a point of rein­force­ment, where pho­tographs can add to the cul­tur­al canon, and a point of fail­ure, from which the link between memo­r­i­al and nar­ra­tive is bro­ken, free­ing the pho­to­graph­ic image of the weight of its con­tents’ cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions. Once relieved of its orig­i­nal con­text the pho­to­graph­ic image is free to adopt new con­texts as it moves through time, cre­at­ing new mem­o­ries along its jour­ney.


Drawn to the win­dow of my father’s stu­dio by the sound of sirens we could see police pass­ing quick­ly up the road. Some­time lat­er the Army sped past fol­lowed by trucks. Then, as fast as it began it was qui­et. As mem­o­ries go, this one is as clear as the last time it was recalled, as is the mem­o­ry of a loud bang and the very vivid mem­o­ry of a black and white pho­to­graph fea­tur­ing an over­turned car beside a crater in a nar­row road. The con­nec­tion between those three mem­o­ries con­structs a nar­ra­tive that informs me that I remem­ber the day Christo­pher Ewart-Big­gs, the British ambas­sador to Ire­land, was killed on the 21st of July 1976. Per­haps, if greater effort was made to recall more infor­ma­tion about the events of that day, more detail could have emerged.

The mem­o­ry of the image of the car is clear­ly a 1930’s Ford, but the ambas­sador was dri­ving a 1970’s Jaguar. The loud bang was in the morn­ing, but my mem­o­ry is at night. Loud bangs where not entire­ly rare in 1970’s Ire­land. The mem­o­ry of my father at the win­dow, where he worked and took pho­tographs every day, is clear, though the only visu­al mem­o­ry of the event through the win­dow is my mem­o­ry of the pho­tographs my father took that morn­ing. Many years lat­er, when he found the con­tact sheet, he told me the sto­ry while we exam­ined it through a loop. Are any of my mem­o­ries of that day from that day? No, the nar­ra­tive con­nect­ing the three mem­o­ries match the sto­ry of the events that day, but what­ev­er was expe­ri­enced has been rewrit­ten with pho­to­graph­ic attach­ments as my mind recon­structs its auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

A con­struc­tivist epis­te­mol­o­gy posits that indi­vid­u­als do not mere­ly inter­nal­ize an objec­tive exter­nal real­i­ty, but rather sub­jec­tive­ly con­struct mean­ing from the ‘‘raw mate­r­i­al’’ of their expe­ri­ences.” Nar­ra­tive the­o­rists have built upon this epis­te­mol­o­gy by assert­ing that humans make sense of—or cre­ate mean­ing from—their lives by con­struct­ing cred­i­ble, coher­ent accounts of the key events they encounter. This ‘‘mas­ter nar­ra­tive” is the­o­rized to be cen­tral to humans’ iden­ti­ty-mak­ing process­es (Jirek, 2016).

Our mas­ter nar­ra­tive, or auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive as referred to ear­li­er, is not con­struct­ed in a vac­u­um; rather, indi­vid­u­als draw selec­tive­ly from a range of dis­cours­es val­i­dat­ed by their fam­i­lies, social groups, com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures. There­fore, indi­vid­u­als’ iden­ti­ties and life sto­ries are per­pet­u­al­ly shaped by his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al and social forces. As we move through our lives, new encoun­ters and events con­tin­u­ous­ly chal­lenge, reaf­firm and re-shape our nar­ra­tive and, in doing so, reshape the self. These devel­op­ments that smooth­ly incor­po­rate into the individual’s life sto­ry do so with min­i­mal dis­rup­tion to our mas­ter nar­ra­tive (Jirek, 2016).

Like a nov­el that los­es a cen­tral char­ac­ter in the mid­dle chap­ters, the life sto­ry dis­rupt­ed by loss must be … rewrit­ten, to find a new strand of con­ti­nu­ity that bridges the past with the future in an intel­li­gi­ble fash­ion.

(Jirek, 2016).

Trau­mat­ic life events cre­ate a con­se­quen­tial “plot twist” in an individual’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive, threat­en­ing the coher­ence of both their sto­ry and their sense of iden­ti­ty. These events may shat­ter assump­tions about how the world works and their place in it and can also, para­dox­i­cal­ly, pro­vide an oppor­tu­ni­ty to revise life’s nar­ra­tives in pos­i­tive ways, redefin­ing their iden­ti­ties and roles with­in soci­ety. This restruc­tur­ing of their nar­ra­tives makes them more resilient as they restruc­ture their under­stand­ing of the world. (Jirek, 2016)

Writ­ing ther­a­py is an evi­dence based treat­ment for post-trau­mat­ic-stress and con­sti­tutes a use­ful treat­ment alter­na­tive for patients who do not respond to oth­er evi­dence-based treat­ments” (Emmerik, Rei­jn­t­jes, Kam­phuis, 2012). Sev­er­al well con­trolled stud­ies have demon­strat­ed that ther­a­peu­tic jour­nal writ­ing helps peo­ple to find mean­ing in adver­si­ty and enhances phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal health. Par­tic­i­pants who wrote about both the emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive aspects of their trau­ma expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant increas­es in post-trau­mat­ic-growth (PTG) (Jirek, 2016). Inter­est­ing­ly, Pen­nebak­er (2017) found: “par­tic­i­pants who had had any kind of trau­ma, but had kept it a secret, were those most like­ly to have a vari­ety of health prob­lems”. Those who kept jour­nals four days per week, fif­teen min­utes per day vis­it­ed the health cen­tre half as often as the con­trol group over a six-month peri­od.

Their life nar­ra­tives evolved over time, as they incor­po­rat­ed new expe­ri­ences and reached new under­stand­ings regard­ing their sense of self and their pasts. The cru­cial com­po­nent was that a coher­ent, recon­struct­ed, post-trau­ma nar­ra­tive was devel­oped, plac­ing the nar­ra­tor with­in a life sto­ry that con­tin­ued on.

In the case of Jo Spence and Rosy Mar­tin (2013) “We began to tell and explore ways of mak­ing vis­i­ble the com­plex­i­ty and con­tra­dic­tions of our own sto­ries, from our points of view, by re-enact­ing mem­o­ries, key sce­nar­ios with emo­tion­al res­o­nance and imag­in­ing pos­si­ble futures”.

Photography, Narrative and Emotional Trauma: Binding Memory

The pho­to­graph is a small voice, at best but some­times – just some­times – one pho­to­graph or a group of them can lure our sens­es into aware­ness. Much depends on the view­er; in some, pho­tographs can sum­mon enough emo­tion to be a cat­a­lyst to thought

(Smith, quot­ed in Wheel­er, 2013).

Mater­ni­ty hos­pi­tals across the UK have, for sev­er­al years, offered instant Polaroid pho­tographs of still­born infants. In sit­u­a­tions like this one, where there has been no time to build a rela­tion­ship or to build mem­o­ries, pho­tographs in these instances cre­ate a plat­form upon which the griev­ing process can find mean­ing in the trau­ma, pro­vid­ing the fam­i­ly with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to inte­grate their dead child into the con­text of their auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

As an adult, I need to some­how give mate­r­i­al pres­ence to my mem­o­ries in order to ‘see’ what was inside my head and give solid­i­ty to my ‘fleet­ing and form­less mem­o­ries’

(Mey­er, quot­ed in Sim­mons, 2013).

How might a per­son who suf­fers re-trau­ma­ti­sa­tion through the mal­adap­tive rumi­na­tions of day­dreams relo­cate their demons and free their mind? Could they use pho­tother­a­pies or ther­a­peu­tic pho­tog­ra­phy to recon­sti­tute the mem­o­ries asso­ci­at­ed with the rumi­na­tions? The trau­ma, at the heart of the rumi­na­tion, that dis­rupts the day­dream can be seen as a block of nar­ra­tive that is uncon­nect­ed to the mas­ter nar­ra­tive, crash­ing around like a free rad­i­cal, unsta­ble and high­ly reac­tive, caus­ing hav­oc in the uncon­scious. As the uncon­scious becomes con­scious, mind­ful­ness would sug­gest breath­ing and emp­ty­ing the mind of the dis­rup­tive thought. In a ther­a­peu­tic pho­tog­ra­phy set­ting the idea can be brought for­ward and addressed cre­ative­ly by mak­ing a pho­to­graph of it, or at least the loca­tion of the real­i­sa­tion that the day­dream had hap­pened.

A cre­ative pho­to­graph­ic approach can be used to har­ness the things that are at the fore in those moments, enabling us to inter­pret and express our thoughts and feel­ings cre­ative­ly, and plac­ing us in a new rela­tion­ship with our feel­ings (Sim­mons, 2013).

The pho­to­graph tak­en at the end of the day­dream rep­re­sents both the asso­ci­at­ed mem­o­ry or trau­ma and the loca­tion at which it was realised. The chaot­ic nar­ra­tive chunk needs to find its way into the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive before it can be under­stood and qui­et­ed. The pho­to­graph becomes the cat­a­lyst for the explo­ration and under­stand­ing of mem­o­ry, from which the process of build­ing an appro­pri­ate ther­a­peu­tic process can be built. In the case of Jo Spence it was inten­sive jour­nal­ing com­bined with ther­a­peu­tic pho­to­graph­ic explo­ration and in the case of Louise Bour­geois it was to recon­struct it, pon­der about it, make a stat­ue out of it and get rid of it. The cathar­sis of the process binds the pho­to­graph with the mem­o­ry and emo­tion of recov­ery, cre­at­ing a new nar­ra­tive block that fits neat­ly into the mas­ter nar­ra­tive and heal­ing the self.  

This realign­ment of the pho­to­graph relo­cates the mem­o­ry of the past to the loca­tion of the pho­to­graph. Reflec­tive writ­ing on the moment: the mem­o­ry and the pho­to­graph tie the bond, cre­at­ing solace. “The old say­ing: ‘We bring our lares with us’ has many vari­a­tions… Through dreams, the var­i­ous dwelling-places in our lives co-pen­e­trate and retain the trea­sures of for­mer days.” (Bachelard, cit­ed in Speaks, 2009) In my own con­text, when I move I bring my demons with me. Dis­placed and unset­tled, my demons’ trou­ble­some man­i­fes­ta­tions, infect and cor­rode every­day expe­ri­ence. By relo­cat­ing them, through the act of pho­tog­ra­phy, the visu­al mem­o­ry of their new home aids in soft­en­ing their expres­sion, cre­at­ing a space with­in which the mind can recov­er. Addi­tion­al­ly, when view­ing the asso­ci­at­ed pho­tographs, evo­ca­tion is split between the mem­o­ry of the loca­tion and the mem­o­ry of the recalled moment, or demon, over time, soft­en­ing the encounter, like nod­ding to a stranger we have seen before on the train to work.

Technical Note

Even today I love the theory—even though I nev­er found a shred of evi­dence that sup­port­ed it. The­o­ries are grand but nev­er take them too seri­ous­ly. Their impor­tance is in guid­ing research. If your data do not sup­port your the­o­ry, trust the data more than your the­o­ry

(Pen­nebak­er, 2017).

The inter­con­nec­tions between the visu­al and emo­tion­al sys­tems are exten­sive, which makes the psy­chother­a­pies that use visu­al mate­r­i­al extreme­ly inter­est­ing. In the area of neu­roimag­ing how­ev­er, there has been lit­tle inter­est in the field of psy­chother­a­py let alone pho­tother­a­py, reflect­ing the dis­tinc­tions between bio­log­i­cal and human­is­tic research areas. For now, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy can only dif­fer­en­ti­ate between basic emo­tions. It will be some time before sci­en­tif­ic research can ver­i­fy or fal­si­fy psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries. (Karls­son, 2013) Did Pen­nebak­er find data to sup­port his the­o­ry? Yes, twen­ty years after he asked the ques­tion in 1997.


The process­es of Jo Spence and Louis Bour­geois twist and turn around each oth­er but over­lap to reveal a process that revolves around four key ele­ments: mem­o­ry, nar­ra­tive, the body of work and time. Spence worked through her process to under­stand what she was expe­ri­enc­ing and to give a voice to those who might find them­selves in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. Bour­geois’ process cre­at­ed a tem­pered pres­sure pot of emo­tion, that served as a cat­a­lyst, from which her work emerged, while also suf­fer­ing the neg­a­tive side effects of auto-trau­ma­ti­sa­tion.

As a process of Ther­a­peu­tic Pho­tog­ra­phy, mem­o­ry and nar­ra­tive are aug­ment­ed by both the pho­to­graph­ic image and the pon­der­ing that is inter­twined through time. This cre­ates the bond that seats the recon­sti­tut­ed mem­o­ry into the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the artist. This process serves as a loop that refines, reflects and reduces until the rea­son to con­tin­ue has resolved. The secret becomes the test; can the art­work be shared or do shad­ows, that ask for the work to be held back, remain? In the case of the lat­ter the loop is still open and more work can be done. Time is the hid­den ingre­di­ent that allows the mind to heal.

The hypoth­e­sis of a four-point process for Ther­a­peu­tic Pho­tog­ra­phy cre­ates a start­ing point for fur­ther research and artis­tic devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, the fifth ele­ment is that of a ther­a­pist whose exper­tise guides the par­tic­i­pant through the secure clos­ing of each opened loop and aids in nav­i­gat­ing the per­ils of auto-trau­ma­ti­sa­tion.

The day­dream may nev­er return to the qui­et escape of child­hood, the mal­adap­tive rumi­na­tions of the uncon­scious show lit­tle dif­fi­cul­ty in revis­ing their list of poten­tial artis­tic inspi­ra­tions. For now, it has one less knife to twist in the heart of the self. Our mas­ter nar­ra­tive is an evolv­ing sto­ry being writ­ten with no per­cep­tion of time, always in the present, writ­ten by our emo­tion­al self. With time, emo­tion is tem­pered by this ther­a­peu­tic process and reg­u­lar reflec­tive writ­ing can ease the bur­dens of mem­o­ry, light­en­ing our uncon­scious load and main­tain­ing order with­in the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the self.


Art Doc­u­men­taries (2013) Tracey Emin on Louise Bour­geois: Women With­out Secrets — Secret Knowl­edge [Online Video] Avail­able at: [Accessed 20/04/2020]

Bari, S. (2000) Louise Bourgeois’s I do, I Undo, I Redo, Frieze Pub­lish­ing Ltd: Frieze, 200, p.139

Bate, D (2010) The Mem­o­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy, Pho­togra­phies, 3:2, p. 243–257

Bergstrom-Katz, S. (2009) In Focus: The Destruc­tion of the Father (1974) [Web­site], Avail­able at: [Accessed 28/04/2020]

Debrix, F. (1999) Post-Mortem Pho­tog­ra­phy: Gilles Per­ess and the Tax­on­o­my of Death, Johns Hop­kins Press: Post Mod­ern Cul­ture, 9.2

Den­net, T, (2011) Jo Spence’s auto-ther­a­peu­tic sur­vival Strate­gies, Jo Spence Memo­r­i­al Archive: Health, 15.2, p. 223‑0239

Emmerik, A., Rei­jn­t­jes, A., Kam­phuis, J. (2012) Writ­ing the­o­ry for Post­trau­mat­ic Stress: A Meta-Analy­sis, Karg­er: Psy­chother­a­py and Psy­chomat­ics, 2013;82 p. 82–88

Esplund, L (2008) When Life Trumps Art: The Sculp­ture of Louise Bour­geois The New York Sun [Web­site], Avail­able at [Accessed 30/04/20]

Ha, N., Bae., S., Hyun, M. (2019) The effect of for­give­ness writ­ing ther­a­py on post-trau­mat­ic growth in sur­vivors of sex­u­al abuse, Rout­ledge: Sex­u­al and Rela­tion­ship Ther­a­py, 34.1 p. 10–22

Hirsch, F. (2018) Mem­o­ry Work: Louise Bour­geois, Art in Print, Jan-Feb, p.43–46

Karls­son, H. (2013) Pho­tother­a­py and Neu­ro­science, Mar­riage, Cohab­i­ta­tion and Divorce. Tay­lor and Fran­cis. doi: 10.4324/9780203070697.

Loewen­thal, D. (no date) Pho­tother­a­py and ther­a­peu­tic pho­tog­ra­phy in a dig­i­tal age. Tay­lor and Fran­cis. doi: 10.4324/9780203070697.

Mar­che­t­ti I, Van de Putte E, Koster EH. (2014) Self-gen­er­at­ed thoughts and depres­sion: from day­dream­ing to depres­sive symp­toms, Front Hum Neu­rosci: 2014;8:131.

Mar­tins, A. (2017) Images of the past and future: the role of pho­tog­ra­phy between mem­o­ry and pro­jec­tion: São Paulo

Mar­tin, R. (2013) Inhab­it­ing the image: Pho­tog­ra­phy, ther­a­py and re-enact­ment pho­tother­a­py. Tay­lor and Fran­cis. doi: 10.4324/9780203070697.

Nel­son, S. (2017) ‘I was not a sur­re­al­ist. I was an exis­ten­tial­ist’: Louise Bour­geois Recon­sid­ered, Oxford Art Jour­nal: 40.3 p. 469–490

Oliveira, M. (2017) Weav­ing the Archive: Some Notes on the Artist’s Books of Louise Bour­geois, Colum­bia Col­lege Chica­go: JAB- Jour­nal of Artists’ Books 42, p 24–28

Pen­nebak­er, J. (2017) Expres­sive Writ­ing in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence SAGE: Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, 13:2, p. 226–229

Rosen­Field, N. (2012) Midlife Rumi­na­tions on Louise Bour­geois, Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly review: 51.1, p. 10–19

Son­tag, S. (1977) On Pho­tog­ra­phy New York : Far­rar, Straus and Giroux.

San­tos, E (2012) How to Read the Louise Bour­geois’ Work From the Per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty?, Edi­tu­ra Artes: Review of Artis­tic Edu­ca­tion, 03+04 p. 152–161

Schroth, F. (1986) ‘Rich and Poor (Book)’, Library Jour­nal, 111(6), p. 145.

Sim­mons, M. (2013) A cre­ative pho­to­graph­ic approach: Inter­pre­ta­tion and heal­ing through cre­ative prac­tice. Tay­lor and Fran­cis. doi: 10.4324/9780203070697.

Speaks, E. (2009) “We bring our lares with us”: Bod­ies and Domi­ciles in the Sculp­ture of Louise Bour­geois: Art Jour­nal, 68:3, 88–103

Tomkin­son, C (2013) Mar­cel Duchamp: The After­noon Inter­views, Brook­lyn Bad­lands, 49

Trim­ble, S. (2009) Louise Bour­geois in Con­ver­sa­tion, Routledge:Third Text, Vol. 23, p. 779–788

Wheel­er, M. (2013) Fotos, fones & fan­tasies. Tay­lor and Fran­cis. doi: 10.4324/9780203070697.

Wye, D. (2017) Louise Bour­geois | HOW TO SEE the artist with MoMA Chief Cura­tor Emeri­ta Deb­o­rah Wye [Online Video], Avail­able at:‑vYvqxHejY [Accessed 24/04/2020]  

Wye, D. (2017) New Per­spec­tives on Louise Bour­geois – feat. Juli­et Mitchell, Siri Hustvedt | MoMA LIVE  [Online Video], Avail­able at: [Accessed 24/04/2020]  

Weis­er, J. (2015) Estab­lish­ing the Frame­work for Using Pho­tos in Art Ther­a­py (and oth­er Ther­a­pies) Prac­tices, Arteter­apia, 9(0), pp. 159–190. doi: 10.5209/rev_ARTE.2014.v9.47490.