How photo albums can help in psychotherapy

Photo Album (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)
Photo Album (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)
I don’t know about you, but I often find that when I look at family photos, pictures from the time I was dating my wife, memorable moments of our children, important ceremonies like graduation or finishing stages of army service, snapshots of grandchildren, trips and vacations, weddings and much more, I often feel very good.
Sam, a 76-year-old man, referred to my clinic by his family physician, was suffering from a depression. After 50 years of marriage, his wife, Sarah, had unexpectedly died following a stroke. Sam loved and admired his wife. She was his world. She was an active woman and involved in leadership roles in the community.
Sam and Sarah had three married children, and grandchildren.
The children, Sam stated, were all very close to him and his wife, and they loved and adored their mother. Sam felt the brunt of responsibility to fill Sarah’s shoes.
He suffered from major depression, the type of depression that some people get after experiencing a major loss.
My clinical work with Sam was to be very empathetic and supportive, listen to his emotional pain, and help him through a lengthy mourning process. My work with Sam consisted of once-a-week therapy sessions for about a year.
The therapy was going okay, but was somewhat compromised by Sam’s failing memory. I was sure that part of his memory problems was a result of the aging process, but I was certain that this natural decline in cognitive function was also emotional, due to the loss of his wife.
To help Sam with his memory problems and to assist him in his need to grieve, I asked him if he had any photos of his life with Sarah. He liked the idea.
This opened up an excellent opportunity to both listen to Sam and to see his life through pictures and many stories. He showed me a few hundred photos spanning many years, from courting to marriage, children, grandchildren and family events. He cried and laughed, but most important, sharing these photos and telling his story helped him mourn his loss.
Toward the end of the year, he met a woman roughly the same age whose husband had died a few years earlier. They became good friends.
Sam finished treatment with a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
How sharing photo albums helps in therapy Photographs of family, of places we have visited and of ourselves help to build an image of who we are as people.
Talking about the personal pictures with a friend, and in Sam’s case, with a therapist is in fact a very therapeutic experience.
Mental health practitioners have always known that one of the most effective ways of saying good-bye to important people and places in our lives is to reminisce about them, and photos provide a powerful medium for this process.
In psychotherapy, we call this clinical task helping the client recapitulate. In this way, we help clients to look back and talk about those past memories, in order to help them move on.
Clinical benefits of sharing photos in psychotherapy
• It helps the therapist see and learn about the important people in a person’s life.
• When the client is revealing and showing the people in his life, it helps to deepen the relationship between therapist and client. In addition, it allows the therapist to ask many more questions.
• Since the seating arrangement between therapist and client is very different, it changes the professional boundary between client and therapist in a very connecting way. Typically, therapists and their clients sit opposite each other. Often there is a little table separating the two. However, when using this intervention, Sam pulled his chair right up next to mine, and we looked at the photos sitting side by side.
• Photos show things that words cannot capture or often overlook. I was able to see that Sam’s wife was pretty and was not showy in her apparel choices. Sam acknowledged that Sarah was indeed very modest. She had an engaging and very warm smile. He spoke about his wife’s smile for two entire sessions, both enabling him to cry, smile and express how much he missed her smile.
• I asked Sam on several occasions how he felt at the time when a particular photo was taken. This helped him overcome some of his memory loss.
• One thing that I encouraged him to do was to show me only the photos that he wanted to share. Sometimes, he would show me pictures of people that he did not like or who had hurt him and his wife. Oftentimes, an interesting story followed, and he felt good about sharing it.
• Photos help to overcome barriers in verbal communication.
In my experience, this activity helped Sam open up. He felt that it was very natural way for him to share a lot about his life with Sarah.
There is no doubt that showing his family photos was extremely helpful to Sam. I have used this technique many times as part of my practice approach with clients. I guess it adds meaning to one of my favorite idioms: A picture is worth 1,000 words.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.;