Caption (image above): Digital offset reproduction of an instant portrait of my mother and her best friend Lena, painted with crayons; 1 of many tests. (by Sofia Silva, 2018).
Starting this series of posts about therapeutic photography and authors working with it, I’d like to make some very brief distinctions between phototherapy, therapeutic photography, art therapy and occupational therapy. These distinctions aren’t scientific, but based on my readings and experience.
Phototherapy is practiced by certified therapists who’ve followed upon their interest in using photography as a therapeutic technique and thus have explored different methods to use it and integrate it into their practice.
Therapeutic photography is not defined by its clinical context; it’s a technique, knowledge or tool mostly used by authors who engage with photography to deal with a whole sort of situations (either on a communal or individual level), like grief, trauma, repressed memories, etc. Knowledge of human psychology is obviously helpful here, but not necessary.
Art therapy is a wider field. It’s nature is fundamentally similar to that of therapeutic photography, but the specificities of the photographic medium are not at its core, so goals and results vary a great deal.
Lastly, Occupational therapy has its own set of noble values; it should not be confused with the pathways mentioned above, since I think there’s a considerable difference: it does not aim at resolution of emotional events.
Photography, so in love with mimesis, brings with it a set of characteristics that make it a particularly good tool for therapeutic endeavors: its relation to time and space straightly connect to memory, narrative and thus one’s notion of identity. It also activates different levels of associations, since it plays with language and elements we understand as part of the real, but also with subjectivity and symbolic values.
With the exception of phototherapy, from a very young age I’ve experienced many different therapeutic endeavors involving art and crafts. I do a LOT of occupational therapy. While doing it – usually sewing, embroidering and/or creating objects out of recycled materials – the aim is not to fill the “void”, but to focus on the act of doing something, redirecting my thoughts, disconnecting from “the outside world”. On an unconscious level, different things are being processed, but being that the goal is not to engage with a debate with problematic areas, there’s no resolution or catharsis happening as a direct consequence of that. Because I’m a passionate gleaner, at home I always have various resources (wood, fabric, etc.) in order to be able to play when creatively occupying my time. Throughout the years, pendants have become my absolute favourite thing to do in this field.
I also frequently engage with Art therapy and the difference, as I understand it, results from 2 major aspects: 1) that I choose to engage with a particular subject and 2) that the work involves a certain amount of time. In other words, art therapy means working through a particular subject by creating work that, because of its ethical, affective and aesthetic characteristics, adds to the subject chosen to be dealt with. Does it provide resolution? Not really. Not always. But it definitely contributes to it and it can have a cathartic effect.
I believe I’ve been doing Therapeutic photography since the very beginning of my relationship with the medium. Sometimes that aspect of my practice was not central to the process, but the majority of the time it was. As I prepare to enter another process of therapeutic photography, regarding the past 10 years of my life, and having to go through all the photographic archives (physical and digital) it becomes incredibly obvious now that the affective intentions have been central to my work. During a process of therapeutic photography, resolution can definitely happen. Of course it depends on the direction one decides to take things and if we choose to engage in confront and resolution, but it’s a possibility.
Although the elite of the art world likes to think art therapy isn’t “proper art” and thus should not occupy the institutional space allocated for artistic ends, I strongly disagree. And, of course, am not alone. On the other hand, most people trying to change the context of “outsider art” are making choices that I’m very critical of:
1) Although I strongly oppose a predetermination of the value of works of art based on the conditions of their creation, that doesn’t mean the opposite is a good way to go. In other words: predetermining the value of works based on autobiographies, novels or context is equally wrong. Both options spit on the idea of artistic value and of a work of art being able to have an autonomous and authentic life.
2) Appropriating the exhibition discourses usually found at art galleries and museums and applying that to works made by outsider artists is just pure laziness. To say that objects with an artistic value need to be hang on walls or put on a plinths in order to be regarded as “works of art” is undignifying for everyone involved in this artistic experience: starting with the author and ending with the observer, who clearly doesn’t need that linguistic structure to have an aesthetic experience. Furthermore, no work needs the symbolic structure of the institutional space to have context.
3) Doing collective exhibitions that unite “ousider” and “conventional” artists with the intent to show that “outsider artists are just as good” is bullshit. Again, that strategy runs with the idea that nominal value is not only the most important thing in art but also that it contaminates those around it. Again, that strategy plays with the idea that an artist’s cv contaminates the value of his/her work.
4) Gathering “outsider artists” in an enclosed space with a trendy name, capitalizing on their “difference” is not a way to value those author’s individuality. Instead , it’s a way to set the conditions for “their” art to be valued with predetermined conditions. If those values are collective, what do their refer to? Does it play with the idea of zoos where people go to see “the animal other”?
Since in the following posts i’ll be addressing photography work, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a video work: Shane Meadows’ latest mini-series The Virtues. As the author himself came to realize, his entire work has had a therapeutic ground. In The Virtues he happens to have a stronger and bolder voice. It’s cathartic and there’s no way the audience can escape from that. So it’s extremely intense and, I found, at times very difficult to watch.