reaching adolescents through portraiture photography

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  • Reaching Adolescents Through Portraitm~ Photography

    Barbara E. Will iams University of Texas at Austin

    ABSTRACT: Informal photography portraits were the key to more open communication in residential treatment of disturbed adolescents. The pictures were not only an innovative shortcut to meaningful talk sessions, they became a unifying thread in the therapeutic intervention process. As staff learned how effective the pictures could be, they were used by every child to ease the treatment path and to mark emotional milestones, from entry into the center, through personal growth and change, to final separation.

    Adolescents are a difficult group to work with. Therapists either love them or stay as far away as possible. There are no lukewarm responses to this volatile group. Tapping into our own adolescent hangups, they flout our authority, speak to each other in a foreign jargon, won't talk when we want them to, remain dependent while seeking independence, and are trouble at home, at school and in the community. They refuse to participate willingly in therapy, having to be seduced into improvement, while the therapist resists being seduced into complicity. And attempting to persuade them to communicate in therapy makes the most arrogant of us humble.

    How do we break through this barrier? Tomes have been written about adolescent therapy, milieu settings, confrontation, peer pressure, etc., etc. And it is all valid; almost anything works once a relationship is established. However, there seemed to be no shortcuts, no simple way to begin communicating. Unt i l . . .

    Quite by accident, with no planning, no hypotheses and no research, I literally stumbled onto a technique which was pure gold. The magic started with a Polaroid camera and the necessity to "complete the files" with a picture of each of the adolescents we had in placement. The snapshots had an unexpected effect on the youngsters--they started taUdng. With several pushes in the right direction from the children themselves, I was able to develop the potential and mine the possibilities of using portraiture photography as a therapeutic tool.

    But let's start at. the beginning. The setting was a coeducational 24-bed residential treatment facility

    for emotionally-disturbed adolescents. Referrals were children judged too difficult to be managed at home, with a foster family or in a standard

    Requests for reprints should be addressed to Barbara E. Williams, School of Social Work, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712.

    Child & Youth Care Quarterly, 16(4) Winter 1987 1987 by Human Sciences Press 241

  • 242 Child & Youth Care Quarterly

    group-care institution. On the other hand, they had to be able, with the structure provided by the Home, to function in the neighborhood school. As the facility was not set up to work with physical handicaps, the youngsters were normal in appearance and generally attractive.

    A wide variety of backgrounds was represented and the ethnic composition of Anglo, Black and Mexican American mirrored the general population. Presenting problems included difficulties in school, defiance of the law or parental authority, and classic psychiatric s)~nptoms such as depression or poor reality testing. Diagnoses included thought disturbances, as well as behavioral and affective disorders.

    Privately funded, the Home was governed by a community board and staffed by professionals, including an administrator, clinical director, consulting psychiatrist, contract psychologist and master's level social work interns from the State University. IAve-in houseparents resided in each of the three cottages, with an extra bedroom provided for the relief staff.

    As clinical director, my venture into photography as a therapeutic intervention was pure serendipity. The pictures were to function strictly as an administrative tool. Bust shots of the children, taken with a Polaroid camera at the time of the intake interview, would be used in reviewing admission material, then retained if the child were admitted, or sent to the referral agency if refused. From this aspect, the system looked good.

    From a treatment perspective, there was an initial question as to whether a teenager coming for an admission interview--admittedly a time of extreme stress--would consent to having his picture taken. The procedure was given a trial period to ascertain whether it might prove countertherapeutic and serve to further alienate an already hostile or withdrawn child. It would be discontinued if it had an adverse treatment effect or negatively affected the beginning phase in placement.

    Every effort was made to approach the snapshot session in a matter- of-fact, nonthreatening manner. To my astonishment, from the beginning the adolescents not only consented, but actively welcomed having their pictures taken. They were delighted with the "instant replay" of the Polaroid camera and curious about what would be done with the prints. Ever alert to any possibility of engaging a teenager in the treatment process, I took this opportunity to discuss the whole procedure with the child. Questions were actively encouraged and that opened the gates. Previous difficulties in verbal engagement were gone. Taking their pictures had the curious effect of loosening their tongues.

    And the admissions procedure was not the only topic of conversation. Locked inside every adolescent is a burning desire to know about other teenagers in relation to himself. However, the typical questions of "Will I fit in? Am I terribly different?" etc., are too threatening to be asked

  • Barbara E. Williams 243

    outright. To my continuing surprise, pictures were a springboard for this type discussion. They wanted to see pictures of the other residents, asking what they looked like, how old, etc. At first, of course, there were no likenesses of the others, but that was soon remedied. Those already in residence were eager to cooperate--they had been expressing jealousy of the new arrivals because they had their pictures taken! It was another way of acting out an old rivalry--the new kid on the block who required additional staff attention and the old-timer who possessed superior knowledge of the system. Focusing on the pictures was just another way of ventilating this tension. It was wonderful.

    All the staff, with the support of the clinical director, began to use the pictures as a method of bringing these friction points into focus. Concrete discussions evolved during weekly group therapy meetings, as well as with individual children and cottage groups. From its inception, the introduction of photo~ ~aphs provided a "real" way to grasp the group dynamics of accepting new members into the fold. After the initial shock of hearing feelings expressed so openly, the houseparents embraced the new procedure.

    And that was just the beginning. Pictures became part of the whole life of the Home community. They did not remain sequestered in the files. Residents began coming in regularly, asking to see themselves. So I began keeping a copy of the pictures in my desk drawer, along with a good supply of film. Another phenomenon was occurring--they wanted updates. The camera was not just taking pictures upon entry into the system, but at meaningful intervals along the treatment path. The term "meaningful intervals" in specifically descriptive, with each individual determining the length of the intervals. It was through this interaction with the youngsters that I developed photo taking into an intervention strategy. Although it is possible to use it with younger children, in my experience the natural narcissism of adolescence makes this an ideal age. In addition, it probably works best with those who have enough ego boundaries to function in an open setting, making it appropriate for a traditional group care home as well as in the more structured "treatment" facility.

    Definite techniques evolved over a four-year period. Baseline equipment consists of a self-developing camera and plenty of film, kept close at hand in a desk drawer. Utilizing this strategy requires a therapist who is not only skilled in relating to teenagers, but also comfortable in a nondirective role. As the child makes the decision how to portray himself, the therapist must take particular precautions not to project his own feelings onto the child and "guess" neither what the child is trying to convey nor where the child sees himself along the treatment journey. A clinician who is not comfortable in an unstructured atmosphere may not have the will to pursue the results.

  • 244 Child & Youth Care Quarterly

    The adolescent both initiates and directs the discussion. This is one time when the patient has total control over what and how much he wants to communicate. An openness to "hearing" and a push to free the atmosphere for reflection is needed on the part of the clinician. Sldlled interviewing techniques, active listening and sophisticated climate setting are essential to avoid creating a frustrating experience. The limits can be summed up under: (1) in this office, (2) when the client feels the need of a new picture, (3) discussion after the picture taking as to why a new picture now, and (4) a central or key staff who can use the material effectively.

    A key element is to be open-handed in how many pictures a particular child may need taken (unlimited is ideal), with positive reinforcement for self-examination. One of the stock questions asked was whether the child thought the shot just taken was an adequate representation of his/her current condition. I always offered to retake the picture until it met with the subject's approval. In spite of this open-ended invitation, it was rarely necessary to take more than one. The adolescents instinctively struck those poses wh