Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

Can photography improve your wellbeing? - Dr Edward Hoffman

Do you enjoy taking photos, either with a camera or on your smartphone? If so, have you ever wondered if photography might be more than a hobby: something more vital for personal wellbeing–perhaps even a path toward  toward self-realization?

This intriguing question, increasingly raised by positive psychology today, has also caught Hollywood’s attention. As depicted in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Sean O’Connell (played by actor Sean Penn) is a famous adventurous photo-journalist – and a hero to his timid, office-bound assistant, Walter. After years of communicating only by mail, they finally meet on a Himalayan mountaintop. There Walter – a perpetual daydreamer – is transformed by Sean’s message as he photographs a ghostly snow leopard: be fully in the moment, here-and-now.

This concept of mindful photography, as it’s popularly known, originated with Minor White, who studied in the 1940s with such luminaries of artistic photography as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. White was especially influenced by Steiglitz’s notion of “the equivalent”— in which a photographic image becomes a visual metaphor for a state of being. Later, as a faculty member at MIT, White taught the importance of meditation and mindfulness for photography — and as a way of life. “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence,” White advised, and he more broadly observed that, “Innocence of eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgment of…wonder.”  

Though systematic research remains scanty, health professionals are increasingly using photography for its emotional benefits. In 2008, the First International Conference on Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography took place in Norway, with presentations by art therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Among its leaders was Judy Weiser, whose book Phototherapy Techniques presented techniques for using personal snapshots, family albums, and photos taken by others to spur self-reflection and improve therapeutic communication. Originally an offshoot of art therapy, the use of photography to enhance wellbeing is gaining popularity through adult classes and workshops. Such programs emphasize how photos can serve as a visual diary for self-insight, enhance positive memories, improve creativity, and strengthen our bond with others.

Mindful photography is also being used in the classroom. For example, in a project designed to teach children the concept of wellbeing, Drs Saoirse Gabhainn and Jane Sixsmith at the National University of Ireland instructed a group of 8 to 12 year-olds to take photos of “things they liked,” while a follow-up group organized these into categories such as “people I love the most,” “food and drink,” and “animals/pets.”  According to the researchers, photography proved an effective instructional tool to explain the concept of wellbeing. At England’s Sheffield Hallam University, Dr Anne Kellock found that participatory photo-taking among poor, New Zealand Maori 8 to10-year-olds helped them identify important aspects of their lives. Psychologists active in this field are using photography with older students too.

In a recent handbook for college instructors, Drs Jaime Kurtz of James Madison University and Sonia Lyubomirsky at the University of California in Riverside recommended that students take photos of everyday things that gives them joy – and then, as a group, discuss their collective output.    

Can the widespread availability of smartphone cameras enhance our psychological wellbeing? A recent study led by Dr Yu Chen of the University of California at Irvine offers encouraging findings on this question. College students were asked to take one photo every day for a month in one of the following three conditions: a selfie with a smiling expression, a photo of something that makes them feel happy, or a photo of something they believed would make another person happy and then send it. By the end of the month, participants in all three groups had significantly improved their daily mood. In addition, those who had daily sent a photo to make another person happy became significantly calmer, whereas those in the other two conditions did not. This latter finding isn’t surprising, for both chronic anxiety and depression involve an over-focus on the self. As Abraham Maslow, a key founder of humanistic psychology cogently observed, among the most painful mental conditions is to feel oneself alone in the world.         

Although it’s both easy and tempting to take frequent photos with your smartphone, I have some cautionary advice. An important experimental study by Dr Linda Henkel at Fairfield University in Connecticut found that young adults who took photos of objects in a museum they visited – such as jewelry, paintings, pottery, and sculpture – performed worse on a memory recognition test the next day compared to those who only gazed at the objects. Interestingly, though, a related study found that when similar participants were directed not merely to photograph the objects but also to zoom in on specific parts, they remembered the entire objects as well as those who didn’t photograph them at all.

How can these findings be explained? In Dr Henkel’s view, simply taking a photo of an object or scene – no matter how beautiful – is no substitute for engaging our personal attention at that moment. She also points out that the advent of digital photography has largely replaced the tradition of printing photos, arranging them in scrapbooks, and looking at them with family members. “If we’re going to rely on the camera to remember for us, then we’ve got to take that extra step and look (at the object carefully).”  

Guided Activity    

Choose a specific theme  – such as animals, people, or evocative architecture, and strive for unique images while photo-taking. To maximize your mindfulness, follow these tips:

1. Shooting with color will align your eye and mind, so look for something colorful, then get in close.

2. Take photos of textures, which are always affected by light quality. Imagine that you’re touching what you see.

3. When photographing people, start with friends or family members. Be patient. Eventually they’ll stop straining to “look good”-- and you’ll get better pictures of their true presence in the moment.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org