Head Space: Photographs Of Psychotherapeutic Environments
@The Freud Museum: 12 November - 12 Dec 2004
Early on in 2003 I began photographing a series of what I refer to as psychotherapeutic environments, that is places and persons connected to the practice of psychotherapy. Notwithstanding psychotherapy's current modishness, and influence on society generally, I was especially interested as a photographer to see what my chosen medium, this manipulated, mechanical process rooted in the world of appearances and materiality, would have to say about a practice whose province was abstract and invisible.*1
At the outset I had only a vague idea of how to proceed. Evidence of which was my first bumbling encounter with a potential participant for Head Space in their consulting room. Unsurprisingly, though I felt a little unfairly at the time, they did not take up my offer of a re-shoot. Gradually however and partly in the light of these early hiccups, a more organised schema or shooting script began to emerge. Broadly speaking this script consisted in making photographs from three vantage points.
Though the order in which I entered these vantage point areas sometimes varied, wherever possible I tried to make photos firstly of the therapist in their consulting room, secondly of the consulting room without them present and lastly of the area outside of the consulting room. This last vantage point actually consisted in two ‘sub-vantage’ points: firstly, the area leading up to or immediately preceding the entrance to the consulting room; typically halls, stairways, corridors and so forth. Secondly, a shot from further afield, with some allusion to the outlying neighbourhood, of the building exterior housing the consulting room.
As far as photographing the therapists themselves was concerned wherever possible I tried to obtain two kinds of photographs. The first of these photos, though again they were not always made in this order, was a portrait of the therapists cropped at the head and shoulders. For the second photograph I asked the therapist to sit in their consulting room chair and assume, as far as they could say, the postures and body language they typically adopted whilst in session with a client*3. I would then either sit in the client’s chair or lie on the couch, placing myself partly or completely in the frame, activating the camera shutter by means of a cable release. Alternatively, I adopted my normal/working [ie.on commission] shooting position behind the camera, outside of the frame, making the photo whilst the therapist addressed their comments to me but directed them towards the vacant client’s chair or couch as if occupied . Even if we were not talking as therapist and patient, their assuming these kinds of professional postures involved at some level the therapists self-consciously assuming the role of being a therapist. This was a new experience for many of them which they reacted to with a mixture of feelings. Equally my taking up the position of the client, superficial though this may seem, put me more in mind of what it might be like to be in therapy.
Other Head Space photographs that fall outside these more ‘obligatory’ images, were all made in these vantage point areas. On the whole these are the more spontaneous snap-shot style images rooted in the encounter between myself and the individual therapist at the time – itself a part of an ongoing relationship.
Discussions between myself and the therapist surrounded the making of these photographs and played a key role in the development of the shoot script. These discussions were considered crucial to the organic, dialogical quality that I intended to bring to Head Space. More specifically individual therapists were encouraged to comment upon my photo propositions providing alternative suggestions or any other thoughts about their work that these propositions prompted. References to these conversations can be found in the captions that run alongside the photographs.
These captions underline the possible deceptions enacted by photographs generally since the spoken verbal information they contain [and that photography cannot record], makes more explicit the gap between what any photograph could be said to represent - what they look to be saying, and what was actually occurring at the time of their making in terms of such conversations. This is an especially pertinent issue in any examination of psychotherapy. Commonly dubbed ‘the talking cure’ much of psychotherapy’s work is conducted within the spoken verbal realm. This explains the special precedence given to language in discussions of the subject. In the case of Head Space photography was thus conceived not simply in terms of the ‘image’ ie the aesthetic or ‘the process’ ie the empirical/mechanical but as an encounter between two persons at a certain point in time, as an intrinsically social and spoken act. In this way photography was still being used to access important information about psychotherapeutic practice but the emphasis on what was meant and relevant about it was shifted. Insights about psychotherapy then were here the outcome of a series of discussions between myself and the various participating psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic bodies. Namely those provoked by setting out to make photographs of psychotherapy, the making of the photograph and the images ultimately produced.
In my mind the vantage point areas came to represent various types of psychotherapeutic environment. Equally I came to regard the shoot script encompassing them as part of my equipment, comparable say to a lens of a certain focal length or light of a peculiar luminescence. It imbued the thing in other words, with a distinctive look, feel and narrative. Just as importantly however, especially in open-ended projects of this type, the shoot script acted as a kind of safety-net holding my more extreme ideas in check, or in the opposite case scenario, providing a path when I felt confounded by how next to proceed*4.
Thus the shoot script was indispensable for psychological as much as aesthetic reasons. Yet, as I have indicated, it was not overly constraining, offering me within certain broad limitations, enough space to develop my thinking and approach. Indeed as I progressed with Head Space I felt myself slowly transforming within it. Starting out, as I’ve mentioned, from a position of relative ignorance, I felt very distant from the whole thing, very much an observer on the outside looking in from afar. However, as I have become more familiar with the intellectual terrain, Head Space’s participants and their consulting rooms, I have felt this distance narrow - albeit to differing degrees according to the character of my relationship with each individual participant. This greater sense of intimacy and understanding, has made me feel more inside the subject, more of a participant. A paradoxical feeling since I am still necessarily on the outside being neither a client nor a therapist.
Perhaps this ambivalence in my field status makes me a kind of anthropologist, that special kind of documentarian commonly referred to as a participant-observer, whose field status is forever in flux*4. My inclusion of the contact sheets arranged in chronological order in the main body of this exhibition, provides a photo-visual account of these shifts between greater distance and closeness to the subject as evidenced by my shooting behaviour. Seen in this context, these contact sheets represent a kind of visual diary depicting how my relationship with these environments evolved over time, as I returned to them, in most cases, on a number of occasions during the course of the project. Perhaps too they evoke something of the special role of time generally within the therapeutic relationship.
In embracing rather than resisting this bias towards the participant’s as opposed to the observer’s point of view, I have felt my grasp on the subject getting firmer. On some level this shift in feeling and approach is only natural as one reads more around the subject and becomes more familiar with each therapist and the places where they conduct their work. That said it is my belief that many who carry out these kinds of documentary projects, which I suppose is how Head Space would be described, often fight these kinds of subjective impulses regarding them as somehow unwanted and corrupting. Taken to extremes they probably have a point and an overly introspective focus is not an enticing prospect for an audience. However, by incorporating these subjective tendencies alongside the more so called objective or observational ones I believe an interesting and fruitful tension is established that hopefully offers the audience a greater sense of engagement with and more authentic insight into the subject.
That said it might well be argued that these concerns with the shifting nature and status of the relationship between observation and participation, [glossed as that between the objective and the subjective] is especially pertinent to psychotherapy. Since so much of the thing self-consciously uses these developments and shifts, in terms of the on-going relationship between therapist and client as a central device, for ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’. So perhaps it would be stranger if this emphasis were absent.
Still, a bona-fide scientific researcher, might well take issue with my shooting script accusing it of being too vague and somewhat randomly conceived. I concede that there’s probably some truth to this too though I have found its mix of rigidity and flexibility well suited to my concerns. It has proved a useful tool, guide and provocateur prompting interesting images and stirring up meaningful insights on myself, photography, psychotherapy and [dare I say it] the therapists themselves on areas that I believe are too often neglected in debates about photography and psychotherapy. For these reasons I believe its use is justified. They make the shoot script in the words of the eminent British Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, ‘good enough’.
What stands out from my experience of Head Space is how so much of what photography teaches and offers me, is bound up in the act of taking photographs - the encounter between the photographer and the photographed, alongside the establishment of the conditions that make that encounter possible, as opposed to the images that result from those encounters and are presented for scrutiny in books, magazines, galleries or museums on computer screens, billboards etc.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to those psychotherapists who gave up their time and trust to take part in this project. I appreciate, now more than ever, that working in this sensitive area their decision to participate in a project of this nature, represents a major investment on many fronts. Hopefully my incursion has been suitably pitched and worthwhile.
*1 To pre-empt the question: I have never undergone therapy for any prolonged period, having only sought the counsel of a therapist on a single occasion during my final year of university. Nevertheless, over the years I have come into close if not direct contact with psychotherapy in a number of guises. My grandmother Jane Coleridge is a member of The Guild of Psychotherapists and practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She is also one of Headspace’s participants. A number of friends, former partners and family members too, have undergone therapy and discussed those experiences with me. Psychotherapy you might say has always been there; hard to perceive precisely but asserting itself nonetheless.
*2 Some therapists refer to their clients as patients though this is unusual since the bio-medical associations inherent to these terms is not generally considered desirable.
*3 Expressed in the theoretical language of psychoanalysis, Laurence Roberts, one of Headspace’s participants, described my shooting script as a kind of ‘Temenos’ - which if I have interpreted him correctly, is a benevolent, all encompassing container [like a mothers embrace - as he went onto say]
*4 An intrinsic aspect of the fieldwork method of data collection, the concept of participant-observation is a key element in the methodology of modern social anthropology as first established by Bronislaw Malinowski at the turn of the 20th century. A methodological concept unique to the discipline, ‘P-O’ involves a schizophrenic sometimes simultaneous combining of distance from and closeness to the object of study on the part of the researcher/anthropologist. As such ‘P-O’ is a composite phenomena: involving a complex of philosophical and neurological assumptions about mental processes on the one hand and more socio-political issues with regard to the use and context of representation on the other.
Perhaps the stance of the anthropologist-in-the-field also echoes that adopted by the psychotherapist. Since both are required to mix empathy and with a more distanced kind of observation in their assessment and treatment of patients. Though obviously individual therapists and psychotherapeutic theory differ on the recommended ratio of intimacy to distance and when the balance should shift.
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