Photo Therapy: A Promising Tool for Healing

Sometimes, a new self-portrait can transform a life. It enables an expansion of self-image that is especially helpful to marginalized people. It also promises to make a dent in the high recidivism rates that plague women trapped in sex-trafficking.

Saskia Keeley, a professional photo facilitator, works with marginalized groups and also groups that are in conflict. During four three-hour sessions, she uses photography as a therapeutic tool for bringing about healing and transformation. In the five years that she has been doing this work, she’s applied the process to MS-13 gang members, Palestinians and Israelis, people who are incarcerated, and, recently, sex trafficked women.

She teaches groups of roughly twenty to develop skill in taking portraits of each other. The result of the exercises is almost always a change their image both of themselves and of others.

New Self-Image, New Life

Keeley likes to tell the story of a participant in her program who had been incarcerated for 25 years. After participating in one of the photo programs, he told her, “Up to now, the only image of myself was from the mug shot that they took of me at the police station. That’s how I thought of myself.”

He said this while holding a portrait of himself from Keeley’s photography class. Keeley doesn’t expect a four-session workshop will utterly change his life, but she is sure that the experience can change his view of his life. “It will allow him more humanity, more strength, and more dignity in how he sees himself. And in a powerful feedback loop, those qualities allow him to treat others in a healthier way, which allows them to treat him in a better way.”

Sex-Trafficked Women and Self-Image

In the case of sex trafficking, changing people’s self-image may help prevent the recidivism problem. People in law enforcement often have the discouraging experience of rescuing a girl from sex trafficking and then working to see that she’s enrolled in an organization designed to help her. But then, the officer sees the same girl back on the streets a year later. Some reports say this occurs nine out of ten times.

Keeley hopes that the tools she uses can change that scenario. She knows that in the sex trafficked population, it’s common for its victims to refer to themselves as “garbage.” The young women she’s worked with from Central America uniformly refer to themselves using the Spanish word for garbage, “basura.” And their traffickers work hard to encourage their victims to think of themselves as worthless garbage who deserve what’s happening to them.

Two of the women Keeley has recently worked with—both 12-year-old girls—exemplify the kind of healing that photography can initiate. The girls, both from Honduras, had been trafficked in Long Island, New York, since age 10. Keeley wasn’t surprised when they each referred to themselves as “basura.”

Both girls attended Keeley’s therapeutic program of four weekly sessions lasting three hours each. At the first session, Keeley did something she always does, something that’s both surprising and strategic. She gave each of the 20 participants a high-quality Cannon T7 camera. It was theirs to take home and keep during the month-long program.

The cameras cost roughly $500 each. For the two sex-trafficked girls, it may have been the first time anyone ever cared enough about them to let them use something expensive or trusted them enough to allow them to take something so valuable home.

Keeley finds that the participants have almost a compulsion to live up to the respect she’s showing them. They get to feel that she’s not seeing them as prostitutes or gang members, but, instead, she’s seeing their humanity. In her own mind, she recognizes that there have been traumas in their lives that led them to where they are now.

In the first session, she talks about composition in photography, and she asks, “If I were to ask you to illustrate dignity, how would you do it?”

With Keeley’s direction, they take portraits of each other. It may take a while for the real action to start. In their first session, the two young sex-trafficked girls took photographs of each other making faces and sticking their tongues out. It wasn’t quite the dignity Keeley was after. She knew, however, that “they’ll get there!”

By the second session, participants typically have changed, and they focus on creating strong portraits of each other. As the sessions continue, Keeley teaches them that “A good photo is one that intrigues you, draws you in, stays with you. I want to see the soul of the person.”

Seeing Themselves in New Ways

By the end of the fourth session, all the participants now have an outstanding photograph of themselves. In her view, “shame and trauma can’t always be conquered, fixed, or resolved, but it can be heard, held and loved.”

“As people open up with each other about the photographs that they are taking, they are better able to come to terms with the past and embrace the future.”

Photo therapy can be a highly effective way of enabling individuals to expand their views of themselves. As Keeley summarizes, “The camera, used in this way, can help break down the mental and visual bars that imprison each of the participants.”


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