Keeping a Digital Portfolio

Keeping a portfolio places value on your work and observing your images over time is part of the therapeutic process. As you continue to build a portfolio, it's meaningful to look back on older images. What has changed? Is your style different? Your focus? Your voice? Are you more drawn to certain colors? Certain times of day? Certain subjects?

Additionally, over time your emotions will vary. Perhaps you started a therapeutic portfolio during a particularly emotional time in your life- those images may convey different emotions to you than images produced at a different time. Photographs have the power to freeze emotions so that we can study them and understand them in a meaningful way without interfering with the process.

A portfolio of any kind takes commitment. Like therapy, you must dedicate yourself to the process. Set aside time every day if possible, or at least a few times each week, to create images. Remember there are no expectations in therapeutic photography, and your portfolio does not have to ever be seen by anyone other than yourself. Let it be messy, let it be technically flawed, break all of the rules. Just make images, and let those images be your voice if only for the second it takes to press the shutter.

Defining Creativity

Something that comes up a lot when talking about art is creativity. Are some people naturally more creative? Is creativity something we all possess? Does creativity equal artistic or vise versa?

There is quite a bit to be said here. The Merriam-Webster definition of creativity is “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas”. defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination”. Both definitions are vague enough in nature that one can begin to see that creativity doesn’t necessarily equate to artistic ability, though the two are commonly associated.

But why are they commonly associated? Let’s think about the following questions:

What is creativity to you? Do you consider yourself a creative person? Why? What characteristics do you associate with a person you would consider to be creative?

Chris Orwig of The Creative Fight states, “all art is creative but not all creativity is art”. Creativity can be anything from a painting to a new invention. I think what’s more important than finding a definition is considering *why* we have creative ability and how we can tap into it.

Creativity is essential to life. It’s like the oxygen that gives us life and the sunshine that provides growth. Creativity is like an electric current to illuminate our path. It is a fire that reinvigorates our resolve to do what matters most. Creativity is hope when all seems lost. It sustains us so that we can thrive. When the creative juices flow, we become more productive and alive. We move forward and accomplish impossible tasks” - Chris Orwig

For the sake of this blog, let’s think about photography as a means of creative expression. You don’t have to produce a work of fine art in order to express yourself creatively. A snapshot alone can be therapeutic creative expressionism when there is intent; it is the process of experimenting with new ideas, methods, rules, patterns, etc. that ignites the spark of creativity.

Creative Exercise: Image Awareness

Humans tend to collect or hold on to things that are important to them. We place personal value and meaning on objects that we keep in our homes or offices. My walls are lined with prints and canvases from places I've lived or travelled. I have a collection of photographs on canvas that I took during the three years I lived in Guam. These images are all over-saturated, shotty attempts at HDR and no longer represent my voice as an artist; however, at the time, I was proud of these images. They're a part of me, a representation of both my time spent overseas and my growth as a photographer. I display them with pride front and center in my living room- they're often the first thing that guests will notice. On an adjacent wall is a collection of framed prints created by local artists from various places I've visited over the years. Travel s important to me, as is supporting local art; I want to see the places I visit as it's locals do.

Family is important to me. I have family images printed on wood hanging in the dining area as well as an assortment of frames displaying photographs on a shelf near the fireplace.

Colors are important to me. I'm particularly drawn to a certain shade of blue that you will find sporadically throughout my home.

what about you?

How do the images that you surround yourself with invoke certain emotions? What do you surround yourself with? Why did you choose those images to hold on to? Answer the following questions:

  1. Pick out a part of your home or work environment where you spend most of your time. Look around at the images in that space (photos, calendars, artist prints, cards, etc.) and make a short list of the ones that catch your eye. Notice if there are any particular colors, themes, textures, or shapes that you see within this space and list them.
  2. Take some time to write down a few phrases about each image or object. Try to note why you like each one.
  3. What images would you like to have around you that you do not see in your environment right now? Are there some that you have already but would like to have more of?
  4. Choose on image and look at it for a few minutes. What feelings does this image invoke? Is there anything you could change about it to invoke different emotions?

[Exercise adapted from The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi]

Book Study: The Creative Fight by Chris Orwig

I used to think social work and photography were two very different things, that photography would always be my hobby and social work my career but I’m learning that that isn’t necessarily the case. In chapter one, Orwig states, “creativity is essential to life. It’s like the oxygen that gives us life and the sunshine that provides growth. Creativity is like an electric current to illuminate our path. It is a fire that reinvigorates our resolve to do what matters most. Creativity is hope when all seems lost. It sustains us so that we can thrive. When the creative juices flow, we become more productive and alive. We move forward and accomplish impossible tasks”. How does this NOT intertwine with wellbeing and mental health? The thing with art therapy is that it has a reputation as being for people who are already skilled in that medium, but that’s not the case. Sure there may require a very basic understanding of how to use whatever tools required, whether that is a pencil or a camera, but masters in the field of art are not the only people who can (or should) benefit from creativity or art-making. “Creativity is a gift from the divine, but it isn’t limited to a specialized group”.

Additionally, creativity is one of few things that actually thrives on overcoming difficulties. “Creativity doesn’t hinge on getting everything right… [it] flourishes when times get tough. The tougher the times, the more creativity grows”. This can be used in two ways: 1) as a form of self care, or 2) as a form of therapeutic photography to help yourself, or a client, face their problem and utilize a creative medium to solve or overcome their problem. Creativity is a means of expression, of thought and intention in the purest form. The more it is utilized, the stronger and more meaningful it will become.

Photography as Self Care

In the mental health world, we talk a lot about self care. The general consensus is that we cannot extend our arms out to others when they are too full carrying the burdens of our own lives. We can only give so much before we need to give back to ourselves. In school, we are required to make weekly "daily care" logs to further ensure we are taking time for ourselves as we navigate through our field practicums. For me, self care can vary from lounging on the couch with a bowl of ice cream to being productive in other areas of my life.

My favorite version of productive self care is photography. There are a million and one ways my camera has gotten me through the stress of a difficult week. The very basic level is by, well, taking pictures. Photo projects keep me grounded, like my Project 365; they give me something to shift my focus on to, something to fall back on, something to work on that isn't "work". My project 365 is something I look forward to, not always in the moment, but knowing how rewarding it will be upon completion. It's hard to explain why, but a big part of it is being able to look back and have documentation of how my photography has improved over twelve months. It's like writing in a journal- you won't know if or when you've moved forward if you don't document the process.

And speaking of writing in a journal, photography is expressive in a way that words sometimes just cannot convey. Photographs can read between the lines when our words fail us. Don't underestimate the power of imagery.

The process of editing is therapeutic to me as well. I upload my SD card, put on my favorite music, and relax, alone, making art. My editing process can vary based on my mood, and that's okay. On more than one occasion I've gone back and re-edited photos only to discover that I was no longer feeling the original edit.

What's important to remember is that you absolutely do not have to be a photographer to utilize therapeutic photography, just as you don't have to be an artist in art therapy. I've been using photography for self care since before I even knew what self care was or why it was important, as well as before I knew how to properly use my DSLR. It's true what they say: if you want to get better at something, you have to keep practicing. Therapeutically speaking, it's more about doing something you love and are passionate about, and turning that love inward as a means of rejuvenation.

Photography for Closure

The act of taking a photo means you’re intentionally taking a moment to remember something. A photograph becomes a documented memory the minute you release the shutter.

The art of documenting a memory also means that we can rest assured that certain moments won’t be forgotten. We may wake up the next morning forgetting all sorts of details from the day before, but a photo will remind us.

A single photo, just like a memory, can invoke a slew of emotions- happiness, sadness, nostalgia. There will always be photos we wish we had taken, and photos we wish we hadn’t or wish we could forget.

Don’t just document the good days. Document the bad days, the in-between days. Or document a feeling that your body and mind are otherwise unable to let go of.

A photograph offers an opportunity to release an emotion, a safe place to store a feeling or a memory, a physical momenta to hold on to. Creating a photograph gives your mind permission to release that memory- to let go of any negative feelings that might be associated with that memory.

Keepsakes aren’t just pretty things. The good and bad pieces our lives make us unique and are worth remembering- unless we want to forget. Unless we choose to let go and seek closure. A memory cannot be erased but a photograph can always be destroyed.

Slowing Down

The true art of photography demands that you slow down and think. I’m not talking about snapping pictures, I’m talking about creating meaningful, intentional art.

There are books and blogs written on this subject alone, and I’m not going to get into the technicalities of creating beautiful photography. But I am going to suggest you take the time to learn.

Learn the exposure triangle. Use manual. Learn to find the light, learn to use the light, to manipulate light, to *see* light. Focus. Composition. Learn the rules (and then forget the rules).

Create art.

Many photographers will recommend learning film photography because it forces you to be intentional. Film is expensive! You don’t want to mess up your shot. You don’t have the luxury of previewing your shot, ensuring you got it before moving on to the next. Whether you’re using film or digital, be intentional. Take. Your. Time.

Do it for the art, not for the moment. There is a difference between remembering a moment and expressing yourself as an artist; there is a time and a place for both of those things, but they are not to be confused.

Think of your camera as a paintbrush, your charcoal, your clay. Use it and manipulate it. Take the time to practice and learn your art.

Social Media Blues

We live in a society filled with technology, cluttered with perceived perfection, bombarded with selifes. We’ve become obsessed with how we are perceived online. Hours of our weeks, sometimes days, are spent on social media sites seeking everything from companionship to inspiration, everything we used to find offline in the so-called “real world”.  This is our world today, this is our generation and our future generations. This is what we’re working with.

Social media has become a huge part of who we are, or who we want to be. How we want to be perceived, how we want to design our virtual personas. We use our best photos in our profiles, we showcase our best qualities. We tell hundreds of acquaintances and strangers what we’re thinking, what we’re watching, who we’re with, what we’re doing. Hundreds of acquaintances and strangers read every word of it.

It isn’t all bad. We’re all in this together, right? We’re all hilariously and hopelessly addicted to this form of social interaction.  I’ve found support through groups of first-time-moms after my first child was born, groups of photographers eager and willing to provide constructive criticism, groups of like-minded social workers sharing ideas, inspiration, and providing support to one another.

But what happens when our virtual presence begins to outweigh real-life and starts to negatively affect our emotions? When we post a picture that doesn’t get any likes? When our tweets result in harassment? When we become hyper-focused on what’s happening on our screens and forget to step away?

“For those who post status updates, the reinforcements keep coming in the form of supportive comments and likes. And of course we know that behaviors that are consistently reinforced will be repeated, so it becomes hard for a person who has developed this habit to simply stop” (Medical News Today).

Can we stop? Are we reliant on these reinforcements?

Am a a horrible photographer because I don’t have many likes on my facebook page? If I have thousands of likes, does that mean I’ve “made-it”?

A few years ago I started participating in what I called Facebook-Free Fridays. I spent the time that I would have otherwise spent on social media doing other things, like trying a new hobby or working on homework. This was a huge eye opener for me for two reasons: One: it was HARD to step away, harder than I had imagined it might be. This in itself is scary because we often don’t even realize what a huge part of our daily lives social media has become. Two: the amount of free time I found when I stepped away was astounding. Think there’s not enough time in the day? Disconnect and see what happens.

Think you’re not good enough? Disconnect and see what happens.

Medical News Today (2015). Social Media: how does it affect our mental health and well-being? Retrieved from