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My personal therapeutic photography as a response to adversity: how portrait and self-portrait could

Aristotele once said that

“the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, and not the external manner and detail, it constitutes true reality.”

I am a photographer specialised in portraiture. Since the beginning of my photographic practice, the human element has been fundamental in my images. I have written about my interest in identity, and relationships between individuals and society in another Inspire the Mind blog.

I love listening to people’s stories and exchanging feelings and experiences. But suddenly, everything was put on standby…the world was stuck, as the pandemic arrived! Fear and uncertainty took place, what if I cannot meet people anymore? This caused me a period of anxiety and uncertainty.

Francesco Catania

This experience led me to turn to photography in a different way to what I was doing before. I began thinking that I had to change the way that I looked at my surroundings, and the kind of work I was making. Then, I realised that the pandemic was giving me the opportunity to slowdown and breathe. I wanted to understand if, through photography, I could figure out what had happened to me.

What became important to me was to look at issues that were relevant to my life rather than attempting to follow the latest photography trends. As a result, my work became more intimate.

With this blog I would like to offer food for thought about photography, when it triggers a creative process and transforms emotions, pain, and self-perception for a better understanding of ourselves. I describe my personal experience and how I got to a new approach to photography.

Francesco Catania


During this tough period, I started to rethink identity: what it means to me and how our perception could change given that we are all forced to stay away from each other.

If we want to understand the nature of identity, I feel we need to approach it in the flickering screen of the outside world, which acts as a constant mirror of identity. It is a construction, meaning that our psychological identity is shaped by our surroundings, as discussed by the professor psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaeghe. It has more to do with becoming than with being, and it’s a process that starts right from birth.

It’s no coincidence that the philosopher Hegel traced the origin of self-consciousness back to the gaze of the other. It is through that gaze, monitoring or loving, that we know that we exist. So, by affirming our existence through images, we can empower ourselves.

Francesco Catania

Before the invention of the camera, people who could afford it relied on painters in order to be represented. When photography made its arrival in 1839, it did not take long before it became a much cheaper and quicker method of making a portrait of someone. People started exploring new ways to depict the surrounding and their self. The photographic revolution created, in the words of the art historian, John Tagg, a democracy of the image, where to be pictured was no longer a privilege but allowed anyone in possession of a camera to maintain an independent control of what was represented.

After many more years, technologies allowed the self-portrait to evolve into the creation of selfies as a form communication.


Portraits, self portraits and selfies allow us to learn a lot about human beings and about that expressive jewel that is our face.

To learn about the healing power of photography and how it can help us better express, understand and overcome mental problems.

In fact, being a means of artistic expression, photography can also have a therapeutic function as it allows those who practice it to get in touch with their emotional state and to acquire a greater awareness of their inner self.

The marriage between photography and psychology is not new.

Francesco Catania

Many studies confirm that photography also represents a form of therapy used by people to acquire a greater awareness on some aspects of their personality.

I have to say that phototherapy should be distinguished from therapeutic photography.

In phototherapy, the use of photography is placed in a clinical setting and the images (photographs made by the patient or other people) are part of a psychological journey with a psychologist, as a personal and symbolic communication. By taking pictures and discussing them with others, and under the guidance and supervision of a specialist of the sector, this therapy could help with mental health problems.

Therapeutic photography, instead, has no proper therapeutic purpose and can be used as a means to start introspective processes and personal growth.

Francesco Catania

In therapeutic photography the photographer is driven by the need to communicate, to himself or to others, emotions with respect to the reality and what is happening around him.

Nevertheless, you do not need to be a professional photographer: a mobile phone, curiosity, and the urge for a deeper perception of the self are sufficient when struggling with some aspects of mental health or when going through difficult times.

Francesco Catania

There are many artists (Cristina Nunez, Jo Spence) who have expressly presented work on themselves as a form of self-therapy that unconsciously, in some cases, or more conscious in others, have affirmed their need to tell a moment, a feeling of discomfort or particular emotional charge … a negative event, illness or bereavement. Many photographers have dealt with themes related to death, relationships or (loss of) identity through photography as a form of self-expression.

I found that out myself, and it proved helpful with my anxiety and sense of isolation. When I thought that I had no channel for being creative — being stuck at home — taking and posting or commenting on photographs helped me to remain connected with the external world. I can now say that photography practices can definitely improve the quality of life, especially during a long-term lockdown. For example, this research from 2018 at Lancaster University confirmed that a daily photography routine and posting images online improve wellbeing through self-care, interaction, and the potential for reminiscence.

Francesco Catania


Photography, especially in these times, is so at our fingertips: it is a very interesting, easy and fast way to voice our unconscious. We can use portrait and self-portrait as pain therapy and self-esteem growth. Here are some tips for improvised photography practice and for helping you with aesthetic choices:

  • Put your emotions on your face, no matter our wrinkles or imperfections

  • Translate them into a pose

  • Find a location that could calm you, possibly with good light

  • Eyes closed, head down, muscles abandoned, sitting there on a chair curled up … without clothes … or with our best dress… these are all signs of a life that flows inside us, that is beyond our control.

  • Let the creative flow to guide you into your inner world.

Francesco Catania

This type of photography allows us to unleash an unconscious creative process to transform our emotions and pain into images, and then work on photos and transform our own perception.

Let’s break the mental patterns that lead us to always do certain things. It is about getting rid of difficult emotions and pain and enclosing them in photographs. Whether it’s a portrait of someone or a selfie…let’s just do it, let’s dedicate this space to understand something more about ourselves.

In life it takes courage, not the courage of great deeds, but the daily courage to face all our fears and insecurities.

Because ‘as Aristotele said, it is all about the inner significance’ and, this is pure exercise in love of the inner self. A creative process that is therapeutic in its affirmation of one’s identity to love and feel loved.

Header image by Francesco Catania


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