By Sarb Johal 19/04/2018

As my photography practice grows and evolves, I find myself thinking about how my training and practice as a psychologist and my interest in disaster mental health overlaps with my photography. I have been thinking about the role of photography as archival memory, but also as a process for recognising, documenting, representing, showing and healing. And as I’ve been thinking about this, I have been thinking about loss, grief, healing and the role of narrative in all this.

I was once lucky enough (back in 2005) to attend a training with Michael White at the Dulwich Centre in Australia, centred on trauma and narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is linked to the idea that we are defined by the stories we tell or believe about ourselves, or sometimes through the stories others may tell about us. Narrative therapy is sometimes known as involving ‘re-authoring’ or ‘re-storying’ conversations.

Stories are central to understanding narrative ways of working. The word ‘story’ has different associations and understandings for different people. In this context, I understand stories as consisting of events, linked in sequence, across time according to a plot.

Now, there is accumulating evidence that art – broadly defined as through many mediums – has intrinsic value in healthcare. As meaningful avenues of expression, they can help to support recovery, build resilience and can have real therapeutic value. Through the creation of an image, words, sounds or movement, we give reinforcement to the notion that, “I exist. I have meaning. I am noticed”.

We see photos everywhere. These days, most of us carry them around with us everywhere too. This is very different to even relatively recent times where photography was a technical medium, and only available exclusively to a select few. Now, a cell phone or a disposable camera are all you need to take a picture and to share them so that hundreds, thousands, if not millions of people can also see your creation. Photographs contribute  to how we see and think about the world, ourselves and others, and also how others might see us too. So as a means to narrate the story about how we see ourselves, our lives and the world, the photograph provides us with a means to tell a story, and indeed an opportunity to examine and perhaps re-author or change the story.

One particular principle in narrative therapy is the notion of the externalisation of the problem. Externalising can be understood in terms of scaffolding; which is the process of developing a separation between the person and their problem-laden world for which they are seeking solution or relief. As the person and the problem become confounded, the risk is that the person becomes part of the problem, or that the person is unable to escape being seen as a ‘problematic person’. Through the creation of separation between the person and the problem-laden situation they find themselves in, there lies an opportunity to re-story the situation and create opportunities for change where they might otherwise have been stuck. The person is not the problem; rather a “person” facing a “problem”.

However, to be freed from the influence of problematic stories, it is not enough to simply re-author an alternative story. Narrative therapists are interested in finding ways in which these alternative stories can be ‘richly described’. The opposite of a ‘thin conclusion’ is understood by narrative therapists to be a ‘rich description’ of lives and relationships. Many different things can contribute to alternative stories being ‘richly described’ – not least of which being that they are generated by the person whose life is being talked about. Rich description involves the articulation in fine detail of the story-lines of a person’s life. If you imagine reading a novel, sometimes a story is richly described – the motives of the characters, their histories, and own understandings are finely articulated. The stories of the characters’ lives are interwoven with the stories of other people and events. Similarly, narrative therapists are interested in finding ways for the alternative stories of people’s lives to be richly described and interwoven with the stories of others, rather than simple, linear stories that are one-dimensional and often where the problems and multiple and dominate the narrative

Narrative therapy has a strong tradition of using therapeutic letters as an externalisation tool, as an active way or organising and re-organising a person’s story, and the elements of their knowledge and experience, of themselves and the problem. This is as opposed to the story that we might tell ourselves and out problem in a non-critical or stereotypical way, because we think that is how it has always been, or how it will always be, or we do not have the opportunity to reflect upon this at all.

“Photo-therapy” accounts do seem to indicate that they can help people to distance themselves from their experience, and so could be a useful externalisation process. What I think hasn’t been examined so well is the process of printing of photographs, and the opportunity that this might afford, for re-storing and re-authoring, especially in the face of life’s challenges where agency and power might be taken away.

When was the last time you printed a photograph? I know we used to print photographs as a family as the time when I was a kid, and continuing through that throughout most of my life. Apart from the last decade, when I have printed out very few. I now meet adults who have never printed out a photo they have taken, and kids who don’t even know what that means. Our photos serve as our memory-keepers – whether they are kept digitally or in physical form. They act as placeholders in time and enrich our family histories with stories to be passed down to the next generation. But for those photos taken before the digital era meant that traditional camera technology took a back seat, including printing, what happens?

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For people who are caught up in disasters, it might seem odd that in the midst of the response and the subsequent recovery that there might be a focus on recovering lost family photographs. But we know that when people are able to take a breath and look around at the remains of their homes, cars and other property, one of the things they wish they were able to do was save their photographs. You can imagine how people may feel if they also lose their digital repository.

There are a lot of articles written about how one can organise photos pre-disaster in both printed and digital form. But what I am interested here is the use of printed photos in the disaster recovery process. Specifically, enabling the making and printing of photographs as a means for people to externalise what is going on in their surroundings and reestablishing a sense of power and agency; to develop rich, thick descriptions of their experience, rather than narrow, thin, problem-laden descriptions. It is all to easy for people to be swallowed up by the disaster and the recovery experience, for months if not years at a time. So processes by which people are able to enter a richer dialogue and discourse that enables them to see themselves apart from the problematic situation they find themselves in can only be helpful. Disasters also have a way of making us feel powerless, and disaster recovery processes can amplify that dispossession of agency. The printing of photographs to enable a re-authoring and re-storying of experience, both individually and perhaps also at a community level through exhibitions and or facilitated discussion and sharing, can potentially contribute towards a healing, recovery process, where a sense of agency can be developed.

Through printing and re-authoring, a process of externalisation might be stimulated where powerlessness can be examined, addressed and re-storied. Photography can provide a transformative narrative to enable people experiencing distress in disaster recovery to engage into a richer dialogue and explore meanings and their significance. Photography can enable people to make sense of their worlds and provide a medium to communicate and express what cannot be verbalised – a potentially useful tool to use when people are locked into a seemingly endless process, where words can seem like a tangled web of enmeshment between the person and the problem. Through the printing of photographs, we can begin to cleave some distance between the person and the problem, and perhaps find a way into healing.