Reaching adolescents through portraiture photography

Download Reaching adolescents through portraiture photography

Post on 14-Aug-2016




2 download


<ul><li><p>Reaching Adolescents Through Portraitm~ Photography </p><p>Barbara E. Will iams University of Texas at Austin </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 . . . </p><p>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. </p><p>But let's start at. the beginning. The setting was a coeducational 24-bed residential treatment facility </p><p>for emotionally-disturbed adolescents. Referrals were children judged too difficult to be managed at home, with a foster family or in a standard </p><p>Requests for reprints should be addressed to Barbara E. Williams, School of Social Work, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712. </p><p>Child &amp; Youth Care Quarterly, 16(4) Winter 1987 1987 by Human Sciences Press 241 </p></li><li><p>242 Child &amp; Youth Care Quarterly </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p></li><li><p>Barbara E. Williams 243 </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p></li><li><p>244 Child &amp; Youth Care Quarterly </p><p>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. </p><p>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 which most nearly approximated how they felt and/or how they viewed themselves. A couple of case histories will serve to illustrate the efficacy of the intervention. </p><p>Case History 1 </p><p>Brenda was referred to the Home because of extreme withdrawal. Prior to adolescence she had been a quiet child who rarely interacted with other children, but presented no behavior problems at home or in the classroom. At 15 she became less and less reality oriented, culminating in school refusal. Becoming intractable at home, she frequently flew into rages which her parents were unable to control. Diagnosed as borderline schizophrenic, it was felt that in a structured setting she might be able to resume regular school attendance. However, with no intervention she might easily end up in the state hospital. In spite of being quite withdrawn during the intake interview, she submitted to having her picture taken and even showed some spark of animation in asking what would be done with it. For the picture, she lowered her head. I can still see the photo in my mind's eye--a clean center part in dull brown hair which fell as a limp curtain over barely visible pale features. Brenda was pleased with this portrait. </p><p>Some six months and many hours of work later Brenda returned to my office, specifically requesting I retake her picture. This was promptly executed. As stated above, each time a retake was requested, the picture was taken first, with discussion reserved for afterward. Questions were always connected with the photographs. In Brenda's case, we discussed the increased visibility of her face. Her head was tilted back more, so that her features were less shadowed and more visible through the cascading hair. The center part on the top of her head was no longer the featured attraction, having assumed its rightful place as a mere artifact of her hair style. Brenda was able to say that she thought a new picture was in order because she was beginning to learn to </p></li><li><p>Barbara E. Williams 245 </p><p>look up and around her more. She was feeling "safer" as she learned to trust her houseparents and the Home. In addition, she had made friends with one of her cottage mates. </p><p>At increasingly frequent intervals, varying from two to three months, Brenda came in for updates. Using the latest snapshot as a starting point, she was able to talk fluently about the changes she perceived in herself and her em4ronment. Then she began going over the previous pictures, lining them up on the desk and discussing where she had been and where she saw herself going. Each picture held special meaning for her and she was able to tie down specifics of change as she perceived them through the images of herself that had been recorded. Just before she left, after 18 months of treatment, she requested a last shot of herself. Just as indelibly imprinted on my mind as the first picture is this last photo. Head thrown back her wide smile and sparkling eyes made her look the picture of radiant youth so widely disbursed in teenage magazine ads. As was her option, she chose that picture to remain for our fries. The others she took with her as momentoes of her progress--evidence of the milestones in her journey forward. Her story was not unique. Snapshots provided tangible evidence of an internal state for the adolescent who was withdrawn or having difficulties in reality perception. </p><p>Case H is tory 2 </p><p>Another type of problem and another way of interacting with the photos is i l lustrated by Andrew's case. Andy came to the Home during the summer between his junior and senior year in schooL A triple threat, he had been in constant trouble with his divorced parents, with school and the law. The paternal grandmother had housed him for the last few years, but she finally admitted that she was unable to handle his increased acting-out. A moderately heavy drug abuser, he had been "busted" for mari juana and assorted other street drugs. The last straw was a drunken bout during which he had literally torn up his father's apartment. A previous history of destroying his mother's belongings had curtailed visits there. Because the testing psychologist and consulting psychiatrist saw Andy as emotionally disturbed (although well on his way to being a full blown character disorder), the juvenile court was willing to try treatment as a last resort before sending him to a correctional facility. He had attacked property, rather than persons, and all of that was "in the family." HIS grandmother was actually the "custodial" parent, but Father had brought him in as the court-designated guardian. Father readily and repeatedly told us (in one interview three times) that" i f we always expected the worst of Andrew, then he would never disappoint us" and washed his hands of the boy. </p><p>Andrew was charming. He smiled brightly at the camera, after carefully combing his hair in the nearest mirror. He chatted sociably about the possibility of being admitted and insisted that he was in fme shape. It was his opinion he had a lot to offer the younger girls and boys in the Home, as he would be one of only two senior boys on campus in the fall. As the staff expected, the honeymoon lasted only a few weeks. Two...</p></li></ul>


View more >