Yes, photography as a therapeutic tool

Some people have a hard time accepting that photography can also be a therapeutic tool, given the right context. To a certain point, it’s understandable: photography is so many different things, that at some point we all struggle with its identity.

I never doubted photography could do great things: not only could it testify and expose, but it could also promote change and bring about real transformation. In many cases, photography works like a gigantic mirror where everything is reflected in a surprising manner, as if we had an easier time accepting what a self-portrait tells us than we do when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Somehow photography, although real, has a different size and it is less threatening that a reflection in the mirror, so it invites us in and it let’s us engage with our image in our own terms.

For a taste of what photo-therapy can look like, here’s Mafalda Rakos‘ project I want to disappear – Approaching Eating Disorders.

Rakos met most of her protagonists— she does not call them “subjects”— through a self-help group for those in the midst of or in recovery from eating disorders. Some were friends before the book project even started. Everyone included had a say on how much or how little she wanted to participate; if someone wanted to stay anonymous, the photographer abided by her wishes. “I tried to be as sensitive and respectful as I could,” Rakos explains, “A ‘No’ could not be turned into a ‘Yes,’ no matter how much I would have liked them to dig deeper.” For the most part, the women were eager to share this part of their lives with the photographer. The mainstream media, Rakos says, represents eating disorders in ways that aren’t always fair or accurate, and the women in I want to disappear were thankful for the chance to be honest about what they endured. It’s not just about “being thin,” the photographer stresses. Eating disorders, like addictions, are the result of complicated events, traumas, and chance occurrences. “It comes from what happens in your mind,” Rakos suggests, “not really in your body.” When asked about the most powerful memory she’s carried over the course of making the work, the photographer mentions a picture that never made it into the book. There was one woman who made drawings and sculptures, and in her artwork, there was always a mysterious shadowy figure in the back. She told Rakos that the figure represented her “her own self-disgust.” The two of them eventually staged a photograph in which the woman confronted the figure, played by a man dressed in black clothes. The project was painful and emotionally taxing at times, and Rakos admits she might have allowed herself to give up if not for a grant given to her by Documentary Project Fund. But it wasn’t just that sense of responsibility that motivated her to continue. “There was also something else,” the artist says. Rakos felt in her core that this was a story that needed to be told, and in the end, she believes speaking out might well have helped the women in the book to repair some of what’s been lost. On the part of both the photographer and her protagonists, the book became “an attempt to point out that something is not okay at all.”. Taken from Feature Shoot.

All the photographs that follow are © Mafalda Rakos.

Note: because on her site Mafalda Rakos chose to present the photographs without subtitles, here they remain the same.

For more on this project (soon to become a book) check the FB page.

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J., Vienna, 2015.
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