Portraits as vehicles for reflection and change?

“Gazing into one’s own eyes is an interesting experience. I’d think there could be great therapeutic value in having some conversations with oneself, someone who appears to be a sympathetic listener (provided by a sympathetic photographer). “

This was Phil Easley’s response after I posted his portrait montage on my photography website.

Phil Easley

I enjoy portraiture and have made single-image portraits for years. (See, for example, the soon-to-be released book about children who have a parent in prison, What Will Happen to Me?) Recently, however, I have been experimenting with multi-imaged portraits. The format was inspired by the photographic work of Egyptian photographer Nabil Boutros. As far as I know he has not used this format for portraits but I am intrigued by its possibilities for exploring personality. Choosing, cropping and sequencing images for this format is an interesting challenge and when it works, it seems to me to provide a more multidimensional impression of the person than a single image can accomplish. I also like the narrative quality it suggests.

In an earlier blog entry, Dialogical photography, I discussed the relationship between photographer and subject, about the mutual regard involved and the attitude with which we photograph. To remind those of us who are photographers of this, I suggested that it was a good experience for photographers to let themselves be photographed.

Phil’s comments above suggest an additional dimension: the possibility that our portraits may help us to see ourselves in a fresh and perhaps more objective way. We often look at portraits of others, trying to discern from their eyes and faces who they are. What if, as an exercise in self-reflection, we gazed at our own portraits, asking ourselves who this person is, who she or he seems to be, what others must see?

When I was working on my book Doing Life, one of the lifers took me aside and said something like this: “Do you know what it means for us to see a respectful portrait of ourselves? Most of us have no photos of ourselves since we entered the prison except for mug shots and awful Polaroid photos. Your photos have helped us see ourselves in a new way, with a new self-respect.”

I remember reading a case study book years ago that made quite an impact on me; unfortunately I have been unable since to identify the book or author. It was written by a therapist who worked with drug-addicted individuals in residential treatment programs. His basic technique was to turn up once a month with a tape recorder and interview his clients. On his return, the next month, therapist and client would listen to the last interview together and then pick up the conversation from there. Apparently the experience of hearing their own stories, in their voices, provided a kind of distance or objectivity that allowed the client to have fresh insights into themselves, often resulting in an improved ability to overcome their situations.

Perhaps portraits could do the same if we would take time, as Phil suggests, to use them as an entre to a conversation with ourselves.

While I am on the theme of portraiture, a second line of inquiry for me has been to work with portraits of friends over three stages of their life cycle. In the early 80s I asked some friends, most of whom were in their forties, to locate photos of themselves at age 12-14. (I chose this age rather than high school graduation photos because at this earlier stage, it seems harder to predict how we will eventually look.) I copied that photograph, then made a contemporary photograph that was in the same general attitude as the first one. Recently I have gone back to some of these individuals, creating a third portrait now that they are in their 60s or 70s, and mounting the three together. (See www.howardzehr.com.) I have also considered following up with interviews along the lines of what Phil suggested above: to ask the people to look at their own portraits at these three stages of life and reflect on who they were, who they are – how they have changed, how they have not changed.

I am fascinated by this latter theme: how we change, how we don’t change; what we try to change; what we can and cannot seem to change; how some people respond to suffering by growth and others seem to become stuck. It’s of obvious importance in the justice field.

In his book How People Change, therapist Allen Wheelis  writes, “In every situation, for every person, there is a realm of freedom and a realm of constraint.” We move between freedom and necessity. “We are wise to believe it difficult to change, to recognize that character has a forward propulsion which tends to carry it unaltered into the future, but we need not believe it impossible to change.”

Insight is important to personal change but it is not enough, he says. Another essential element is a tolerance of conflict: “…the greater our tolerance the more freedom we retain.” But real change is difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible.

Part of what makes this book so powerful is that he speaks not only as a professional therapist but out of his own experience of suffering and his struggles to overcome its effects. Eventually he discloses the suffering he experienced when abused by his father, the “steel fingers” that seem to grab his heart when memories of those experiences are triggered, and the difficulties overcoming the resulting patterns of thought and behavior. He identifies the pattern for himself: “The trigger for anxiety is the giving of an account upon which I may be judged.” He finds within himself “…a hidden conviction that my accounting will be inadequate, that the judgment will be adverse and beyond appeal.” He identifies the incidents that lead to this ongoing anxiety but that insight does not make the anxiety go away.

Both conditioning and freedom are true, he concludes; “…they coexist, grow together in an upward spiral, and the growth of one furthers the growth of the other. “ Paradoxically, “The more cogently we prove ourselves to have been shaped by causes, the more opportunities we create for changing.”

Changes in personality follow changes in behavior, he argues. “The sequence is suffering, insight, will, action, change. The one who suffers, who wants to change, must bear responsibility all the way.”

So how do people change? How much can they change? What does it take to change? Why do some people find themselves able to transcend suffering and challenge while others do not? How do victims become survivors? How do those who have offended manage to overcome that identity and behavior? Could photographic portraits be instruments to help us understand this better?

5 comments on “Portraits as vehicles for reflection and change?”

  1. Howard,

    You always get me to think more deeply about photography. I love it!

    Coincidentally I just had my wife take new portraits of me today b/c I realized I need a friendlier avatar photo.

    As I looked at my current, high-contrast black & white avatar, I saw the side of me which is serious, contemplative, and hurt by the brokenness on earth. I realized that this is all true to who I am. But it is not the face I wear when meeting people. Avatars are often the image someone “meets” you with nowadays on twitter and facebook.

    I am actually quite friendly, very open, giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing the best about who they are and the opportunities we have each day.

    The new portrait is intended to communicate this b/c I think that’s who people would meet if/when they meet me offline.

    Call me over analytical, but I also intentionally created the lighting to leave one side of my face more in a shadow, but not too much. I am into dramatic contrasts as metaphor for the tensions between Light & Dark at work in us and in the world. Your ‘about the author’ picture here possesses this lighting quality.

    This post is very relevant to me and has caused me to think about this even more. Good timing, too. I’m hoping to have this new avatar up, on at least twitter, by next week.

    Something I do in my cultural / documentary photography is show the image on the display screen to my subject after I’ve taken it. Their reaction informs me on how to proceed, or not. But now, I’m thinking there could be certain questions worth exploring with them if time and circumstance (and language) permitted.

  2. I can look at portraits for days. To me, a portrait works when the people looking at it wonder who the person is or was, and want to learn more about the subject. This photo (let’s hope the link works) almost always makes people ask, “I wonder how this little guy is gonna turn out.” [url]http://www.flickr.com/photos/durhamskywriter/4609881569/[/url]

    When I’m photographing someone, I feel that they’re ‘giving’ me something as opposed to my simply ‘taking’ their picture.

    patricia A murray
    former student of yours at Talladega College

  3. Howard,

    I am intrigued by your the concept of photographs allowing the subject to be more at peace, and have new self respect. I am not specifically a portrait photographer, but have the ambition for the photographs I take to affect change.

    I never thought that a portrait could do this, but I see how it can according to the quote below taken from your article.

    “Do you know what it means for us to see a respectful portrait of
    ourselves? Most of us have no photos of ourselves since we entered
    the prison except for mug shots and awful Polaroid photos.
    Your photos have helped us see ourselves in a new way, with a
    new self-respect.”

    Also the example of a multi-image portrait can really help — like a mini photo story of a subject.

    Thanks for “thinking”
    Kerry Lammi

  4. Howard,
    This is a very interesting idea to get portraits of people at three stages of life and reflect on who they were, who they are – how they have changed, how they have not changed. I like portraits at your website: http://www.howardzehr.com.

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Mike says:

    Portraits on your website are awesome. I love it and agree with Mario “You always get me to think more deeply about photography”

    Best Regards,

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