Connecting Through Creativity: Therapeutic Photography Part 1

Connecting Through Creativity: Therapeutic Photography Part 1

By Barbara K. Stump, MA

As we lean into 2024, I have to admit 2023 brought some challenges for me. How was it for you? What obstacles did you face? Did you, or anyone in your life, have to do some physical or mental healing this year? What helped with the healing process? Dr. Adrianne R. Pinkney, an Integrative Wellness and Life Coach, states,“I am a firm believer that all things, situations and people can, and do, heal when healing is desired. I also believe that people heal differently and not everyone heals in the same way.” In addition to working with a physician, therapist, or another professionally trained person, maybe music, art, or some type of physical activity helps you to cope during difficult times. Have you tried using photography as a therapeutic practice? For the next two blog posts, we will look through a camera lens to remind us of what brings us joy, what we love, and who we are as we work our way through recovery journeys, and into the new year. 

To rephrase what I mentioned earlier, there were both highs and lows for me in 2023, but the lows were significant.  Actually, right out of the gate, the year did not start well.  The first week of 2023, my dad had a stroke and he laid in a hospital bed for the whole month of January. Then he was moved to a rehabilitation facility for several months. The stroke affected the left side of his body, and we were told he would never eat solid foods again. All of his doctors said the odds were against him regaining this ability. They made a decision to surgically insert a port into his stomach to receive liquid “food” nutrients. 

Before you become discouraged reading this, there is a silver lining. At the beginning of February, a speech therapist, named Annalise, was assigned our dad on her caseload. As a recent college graduate student, she was determined to help him regain his ability to swallow solid food. Adding to this, the idea of not being able to enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey again was disheartening for him. So, naturally, they both worked well together. He was motivated in his speech therapy sessions, and diligently practiced all of the exercises Annalise assigned. After several months of therapy, our dad became Annalise’s first patient to successfully gain back his ability to swallow. Gradually solid foods and liquids were reintroduced into his diet, and his feeding tube port was removed from his stomach. This was utterly amazing, and a huge triumph! He persevered, and we are very grateful for Annalise’s unwavering efforts. 

The time frame for all of this was about 7 months, and to state the obvious, it was difficult—difficult for our dad and difficult for our family.  Perhaps you have experienced, or are currently experiencing, something similar with a family member.  What helped you and your family cope? What were constricting obstacles for healing? In my dad’s case, the hospital room, and also the rehab facility, where he was staying did not feel cozy. We all agreed they were both depressing environments. 

One thing our family did to support our dad during his healing process was fill up his hospital and rehabilitation rooms with photos. These pictures helped to transform both into cheerful environments for him to work on recovering. We brought in pictures of our family, important life events, and places he cherished. My sister and I taped these pictures all over his walls, drawers, and doors. 

Besides working with a speech therapist, he had to attend weekly appointments with a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. It was literally like going to work Monday through Friday for him, and sometimes on the weekends. So, we displayed a calendar in his room to note these important appointments as reminders. This calendar was created featuring pictures of all of our family dogs. Our dad absolutely adores dogs, almost as much as he enjoys food! We all know the positive benefits of pets—warm hugs, and slobbery kisses to say hello from our four-legged friends are the best medicine, so to speak! 

Most importantly, all of these photos became conversational pieces he could share with whomever entered his room, from visitors to therapists to maintenance staff. It enabled him to maintain his identity, of who he was before the stroke, in a way that prevented him from being defined by it. Here are a few pictures from his canine calendar, as well as a picture of him holding his calendar. 

Service dogs, and most dogs as they age, have honorable patience. They faithfully report for duty, no questions asked, and assist in communicating with their helping “paws” as well as providing unconditional love. Their favorite place, without a question, is right next to a human. This is where I will give a plug for Lexie, a certified therapy dog, available for service at the Galvin Growth Group practice. She is a Mini Bernedoodle and is a “24 pound ball of happiness.” If you would enjoy some furry hugs from Lexie, and would like to talk with a psychologist, social worker, or speech therapist while doing so, it can be arranged at the office. Check out this adorable picture of Lexie below!

Pets can be beneficial, and overcoming physical and mental health setbacks can be difficult to overcome alone. Never hesitate to ask for help, or look for resources to help you. Display pictures to remind you of who you were before this happened, your interests, and the things that brought joy to your life. Plaster those images all over your room as a daily reminder of who you are!  

In Part 2 of “Therapeutic Photography,” I will share my own recovery journey from a recent surgery. I will also offer some more therapeutic photography ideas you could try on your own. Whether or not it is for for a therapeutic purposes , photography can be fun just to do as a creative outlet. 

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Christoper Reeve, an actor famous for playing the role of Superman, and who became paralyzed after being thrown from a horse. He said,“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible. A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Christopher Reeve to lose his ability to walk and do everything else he previously did unassisted. Maybe for him, being immortalized as Superman, and the images of those times, was worth holding onto for the rest of his life.

You may not have played Superman, but surrounding yourself with images from your life before the setback could only help you along the path to recovery. Likewise, if you’re caring for a loved one recovering from a setback, it wouldn’t hurt to support their healing process with such images.

Barbara K. Stump is an art education consultant and a G3 contributing writer.