I run a podcast called Who cares? What's the point? In it, I interview people from around the world who are doing interesting things in psychology. In one recent episode, I spoke with Alex Barasch from the Stern Business School at New York University about how we may often hear the message that we should stop taking so many photos and just be in the moment and enjoy our experiences without trying to record everything. But is this true? Does photography - especially using our smartphones - get in the way of our experience of life? You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript of my interview with Alex here. I hope you enjoy it.
I can't quite believe it, but my first gallery exhibition opens later this month. American Granite will run from June 22 - July 16 at Photospace Gallery on Courteney Place in Wellington, New Zealand.
I have been working in the area of disaster mental health as a psychologist for over 10 years. During this time, I’ve seen a few responses to emergencies, and some recovery processes too, as well as being involved in the work of preparing for disaster and understanding how people perceive risk, and actions they take on those perceptions. Or, sometimes how people discount risk so that they don’t have to contemplate uncomfortable truths, meaning they can carry on as they are rather than be forced to take action that would greatly disturb how they currently live their lives.
One way I try to represent this in this series of photographs that I have made is through our relationship with place and time. The end of the day means it is time to be with the people we care about, to leave work and to re-connect with each other as the day draws to a close. We live in a beautiful country, so what would be better than to move to a high viewpoint to watch the sun set and the light fall on the sea, with big open skies to watch the colourful show as the stars begin to twinkle in the twilight, and to share that experience.
But to share in modern life means more than to share with just the people we are physically in that place with. It means to share with a much wider community online. And when I take the photograph with that mobile phone, perhaps I become a little less connected to the people I am physically with, and more concerned about who might be watching what we post online from afar. How will they judge what I post? Maybe I need to exaggerate the photograph, just a little, to make sure they understand what an amazing moment this is that I am sharing with them. But as the screen dims to our eyes, as it does when our eyes have been looking at it for a while, as we judge that the colours aren’t quite popping off the screen as we would like them to, we perhaps turn the sliders up to far, causing our photograph to become quite disconnected from the scene we are actually looking at.
It is this disconnection from experience that I am interested in exploring. It isn’t the making of the photograph that causes us to become disconnected. I wonder if it is because we show this to others online, to a large audience, that causes us to loosen the connection between reality and representation, to exaggerate the colours and the landscape we see, to meet with the approval and liking of others. To create a hyperreality. To me, this distortion of reality to meet the needs of the audience isn’t new in photography. It isn’t new in the study of risk perception either. Of course, it isn’t a universal experience, for example, the use of the #nofilter hashtag is a nod at least to an acknowledgement of the augmentation of images that happens more often that not.
The idea of solution aversion is one way to understand this; we alter our view of reality to be as flattering as possible. When we look at the world around us and we see problems, like climate change or inequality, people may be motivated to deny problems and the scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problems if we don’t like the solutions being proposed. Similarly, if we don’t think the scene we are witnessing is good enough to share compared to how we think it should look, or indeed in comparison to all the other sunset pictures that are being posted on social media, then perhaps we alter reality to become as flattering as possible. Because the other solution would be to post the picture as it is, and the feared outcome is that we will be ignored.
As we alter reality to avoid being ignored, and to increase the likelihood that our image will be liked, I wonder if we become increasingly disconnected from the reality of the world we live in. Instead, we unconsciously choose to romanticise the land and our experience of it as perfect, ambient, and the envy of the world. I wonder if we do this so often because when and if we take a long look at our world, we see problems that are hard to fix, and will take concerted action by individuals, communities and nations to make the difference that catalyses real change.
It’s easier to alter our perception of reality rather than to grasp the hard solutions to make real change. But, if we continue to do this romanticise our landscape and create hyperrealities, then I wonder what reality waits for us.
It's an exciting day today as I launch my first exhibition today. Here are some images of the 4 photographs being displayed at Raglan Roast Cafe on Abel Smith Street, in Wellington. And here's the artist statement I have on display there too. I've put up another post here describing the thought process behind this sequence of images I have decided to explore too. This exhibition by Dr Sarb Johal opens on 26 April and is located at the Raglan Roast cafe, on Abel Smith Street in Wellington. This series of 4 large images explores our relationship with our landscape, and how we tweak the photos we take on our cellphones to get more likes for that amazingly beautiful sunset.
Instagram-able photos - that’s what lots of people want when they grab their cellphone as the sun goes down. Even better if there is a handy scenic backdrop. Pump up the colours before you post on social media, because it just needs to look more dramatic. And, of course, lots of ❤
I am interested in our relationship with the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. In this work, I look at how we romanticise what we see, trying to create sharable moments that perpetuate our fantasy of New Zealand as we like to see it. This small sequence of 4 images finishes with questioning what might await us if we only see the Instagram-able shot; most likely fewer ❤ from the land itself.
The photographs were made on the south coast of Wellington looking out towards South Island in the summer of 2018, at the small dog-friendly park off Bann Street in Southgate. The images were edited in Lightroom and printed out on archival paper. I’m interested in bringing photos back to life by printing them - so many photos live online only. A Fujifilm X-T1 with 50-230mm lens was used to capture the images.
Dr Sarb Johal is a clinical psychologist and photographer.
Email: email@example.com to buy prints
Many thanks and humble bows to Raglan Roast for hosting this exhibition.
Of course, I make photographs because, well, I like making photographs. Forgive me if this seems somewhat circular, but it's difficult to distance oneself from a practice that has been so ingrained for so many years, becoming an unconscious reflex. These days, that reflex is to grab my phone when I'm in a situation where it feels like an interesting image may be about to present itself. I'm trying to train myself out of that more recent reflex development, by providing an alternative pathway to an actual camera I try to have at hand.
But it is an interesting exercise to try to understand the path of my life's experience and training, and how that might influence how I see the world, and how I frame images and my use of light when I make photographs. For example, the range of expressions it looks like I habitually capture when I look through my back catalogue. The absences of people or emotions which feel somehow too difficult in one way or another to commit to a photographic process. It is an evolving way of seeing my photographic practice, but here's where I have arrived at most recently, in as succinct a way as possible:
I use photography as a means of exploring the relationship between people, place, and behaviour. Drawing on my 25 years or experience as a psychologist helps me to frame my images and the people and place that I photograph. Often, I won’t know what has drawn me to make a photograph of a particular image. And more often than not, I discover something else as I process and actually physically print out that photo too. Photography helps me to explore the hidden understandings of my character, the knowledge I bring, and the world I live in and how they all come together in the creation of a photograph.
(Photo credit: By Nationaal Archief [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)
As my photography practice grows and evolves, I find myself thinking about how my training and practice as a psychologist and my interest in disaster mental health overlaps with my photography. I have been thinking about the role of photography as archival memory, but also as a process for recognising, documenting, representing, showing and healing. And as I’ve been thinking about this, I have been thinking about loss, grief, healing and the role of narrative in all this.
I was once lucky enough (back in 2005) to attend a training with Michael White at the Dulwich Centre in Australia, centred on trauma and narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is linked to the idea that we are defined by the stories we tell or believe about ourselves, or sometimes through the stories others may tell about us. Narrative therapy is sometimes known as involving ‘re-authoring’ or ‘re-storying’ conversations.
Stories are central to understanding narrative ways of working. The word ‘story’ has different associations and understandings for different people. In this context, I understand stories as consisting of events, linked in sequence, across time according to a plot.
Now, there is accumulating evidence that art - broadly defined as through many mediums - has intrinsic value in healthcare. As meaningful avenues of expression, they can help to support recovery, build resilience and can have real therapeutic value. Through the creation of an image, words, sounds or movement, we give reinforcement to the notion that, “I exist. I have meaning. I am noticed”.
We see photos everywhere. These days, most of us carry them around with us everywhere too. This is very different to even relatively recent times where photography was a technical medium, and only available exclusively to a select few. Now, a cell phone or a disposable camera are all you need to take a picture and to share them so that hundreds, thousands, if not millions of people can also see your creation. Photographs contribute to how we see and think about the world, ourselves and others, and also how others might see us too. So as a means to narrate the story about how we see ourselves, our lives and the world, the photograph provides us with a means to tell a story, and indeed an opportunity to examine and perhaps re-author or change the story.
One particular principle in narrative therapy is the notion of the externalisation of the problem. Externalising can be understood in terms of scaffolding; which is the process of developing a separation between the person and their problem-laden world for which they are seeking solution or relief. As the person and the problem become confounded, the risk is that the person becomes part of the problem, or that the person is unable to escape being seen as a ‘problematic person’. Through the creation of separation between the person and the problem-laden situation they find themselves in, there lies an opportunity to re-story the situation and create opportunities for change where they might otherwise have been stuck. The person is not the problem; rather a “person” facing a “problem”.
However, to be freed from the influence of problematic stories, it is not enough to simply re-author an alternative story. Narrative therapists are interested in finding ways in which these alternative stories can be ‘richly described’. The opposite of a ‘thin conclusion’ is understood by narrative therapists to be a ‘rich description’ of lives and relationships. Many different things can contribute to alternative stories being ‘richly described’ – not least of which being that they are generated by the person whose life is being talked about. Rich description involves the articulation in fine detail of the story-lines of a person’s life. If you imagine reading a novel, sometimes a story is richly described – the motives of the characters, their histories, and own understandings are finely articulated. The stories of the characters’ lives are interwoven with the stories of other people and events. Similarly, narrative therapists are interested in finding ways for the alternative stories of people’s lives to be richly described and interwoven with the stories of others, rather than simple, linear stories that are one-dimensional and often where the problems are multiple and dominate the narrative
Narrative therapy has a strong tradition of using therapeutic letters as an externalisation tool, as an active way or organising and re-organising a person’s story, and the elements of their knowledge and experience, of themselves and the problem. This is as opposed to the story that we might tell ourselves and out problem in a non-critical or stereotypical way, because we think that is how it has always been, or how it will always be, or we do not have the opportunity to reflect upon this at all.
“Photo-therapy” accounts do seem to indicate that they can help people to distance themselves from their experience, and so could be a useful externalisation process. What I think hasn’t been examined so well is the process of printing of photographs, and the opportunity that this might afford, for re-storing and re-authoring, especially in the face of life’s challenges where agency and power might be taken away.
When was the last time you printed a photograph? I know we used to print photographs as a family as the time when I was a kid, and continuing through that throughout most of my life. Apart from the last decade, when I have printed out very few. I now meet adults who have never printed out a photo they have taken, and kids who don’t even know what that means. Our photos serve as our memory-keepers - whether they are kept digitally or in physical form. They act as placeholders in time and enrich our family histories with stories to be passed down to the next generation. But for those photos taken before the digital era meant that traditional camera technology took a back seat, including printing, what happens?
(Used under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License: Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/simpleinsomnia/24091249970)
For people who are caught up in disasters, it might seem odd that in the midst of the response and the subsequent recovery that there might be a focus on recovering lost family photographs. But we know that when people are able to take a breath and look around at the remains of their homes, cars and other property, one of the things they wish they were able to do was save their photographs. You can imagine how people may feel if they also lose their digital repository.
There are a lot of articles written about how one can organise photos pre-disaster in both printed and digital form. But what I am interested here is the use of printed photos in the disaster recovery process. Specifically, enabling the making and printing of photographs as a means for people to externalise what is going on in their surroundings and reestablishing a sense of power and agency; to develop rich, thick descriptions of their experience, rather than narrow, thin, problem-laden descriptions. It is all to easy for people to be swallowed up by the disaster and the recovery experience, for months if not years at a time. So processes by which people are able to enter a richer dialogue and discourse that enables them to see themselves apart from the problematic situation they find themselves in can only be helpful. Disasters also have a way of making us feel powerless, and disaster recovery processes can amplify that dispossession of agency. The printing of photographs to enable a re-authoring and re-storying of experience, both individually and perhaps also at a community level through exhibitions and or facilitated discussion and sharing, can potentially contribute towards a healing, recovery process, where a sense of agency can be developed.
Through printing and re-authoring, a process of externalisation might be stimulated where powerlessness can be examined, addressed and re-storied. Photography can provide a transformative narrative to enable people experiencing distress in disaster recovery to engage into a richer dialogue and explore meanings and their significance. Photography can enable people to make sense of their worlds and provide a medium to communicate and express what cannot be verbalised - a potentially useful tool to use when people are locked into a seemingly endless process, where words can seem like a tangled web of enmeshment between the person and the problem. Through the printing of photographs, we can begin to cleave some distance between the person and the problem, and perhaps find a way into healing.