Phototherapy—the therapeutic use of photographs—goes back well before the arrival of digital technology, but as in other fields, digitisation has produced its expansion and extension. In the community mental health programme in Lucca, a small town in Tuscany, it is now one of a battery of therapeutic activities, including art, drama, music and journalism, as well as video and an online multimedia magazine. I’ve come here to participate in a workshop, led by Carmine Parrella, along with people from Finland and colleagues from Roehampton University, to learn how it works, invited by Del Loewenthal (of Roehampton) with whom I’m planning a possible video project. I’m therefore an outsider, since unlike almost everyone else, I’m not a therapist or psychologist or someone involved in using these techniques.
Sitting in a cafe with Del on the first afternoon, we get a reminder of the broader political context when an anti-racist demonstration comes by:
Phototherapy is not a single defined method but rather a family of practices related by the employment of photos for a variety of therapeutic aims. In Lucca it begins with the use of family photos which are interrogated, with the help of a professional writer, to produce short written narratives which are used, without interpretation, to help the individual recognise and cope with, or at least to manage, their emotions. One can therefore speak here of a politics of phototherapy—a question I’ll come back to.
If the emphasis is on emotional self-recognition, there’s also a cognitive dimension, because emotional blockage is often associated with cognitive impairment, and to release the former is thus often to begin to restore the latter. The method is backed up by a sophisticated theory of narrative. The narratives produced around these photos, says Carmine, come in three kinds: closed, open, or unresolved—that is, in a therapeutic sense. To work therapeutically with unresolved narratives, all you need to do is to shift the point of view, for the patient to rewrite the story of the photo from the point of view of another character within it. Thus learning to invent, at the same time, as Carmine puts it, a person realises they can tell lies. All of this, it seems to me, among other thoughts, has very interesting relations to and implications for narrative film theory, both fiction and documentary.
I’m also struck by certain aspects of the wider programme built around the use of video and the web. Video, for example, is sometimes used with people who find it difficult, for whatever reason, to put down words on paper. There is an obvious relationship here to the varieties of autobiographical film-making which have appeared in recent decades, a genre that always lies in danger of succumbing to the film-maker’s narcissism. Yet such films may well arise from a kind self-directed therapeutic need which has something to do with defining or giving shape to questions about identity, and is capable of arousing the viewer’s empathy. This would be closer to one strand of the video therapy practiced in the Lucca setting. But video is also used here in a highly social and collective way to make short films—some forty of them to date—both fiction and reportage, which often get shown locally.
The web magazine produced in Lucca, where some of these videos are also posted, raises other issues. Indeed there are several dynamics at work here. First, it isn’t self-centred and is therefore (as Del says to me) more like occupational therapy, although I would add, with a difference, because this is not just more sophisticated than gardening, say—it’s also cooperative, social and directed outwards. It offers the benefit, as Carmine puts it, of providing rapid positive reinforcement, the advantage of the digital being that the process is not a long drawn out affair requiring considerable sustained concentration; at the same time, it helps the re-insertion of the individual into a collective. The object is not to make journalists out of the individuals participating in the programme, because, in Carmine’s words, the journalist is the collective. By participating they are able to go out and investigate local issues in the safety of the group, and at the same time to share a sense of common experience.
This again, from my own perspective, raises several issues which bring us back to the political domain. For one thing, the project demonstrates the capacity of digital media to break out of the narrow confines of professionalism; this is potentially to challenge authority. One might also consider the Lucca web magazine under the new rubric of citizen journalism, with the peculiarity that the journalists in question are drawn from the disadvantaged. But to speak of citizen journalism is to raise the question of the democratisation effect which is frequently claimed for digital media. If the web is de facto democratic because it’s participatory, its famous networks nevertheless operate at different levels, the global at one extreme, the local at the other. Lucca’s web magazine operates in the immediate geographical area which has a catchment area of 160,000 people. Its primary aim, as a community mental health service, is to serve this community. But of course, while Lucca remains unique in Italy, it also turns out to be part of a wider transnational network which connects social therapists on both sides of the Atlantic in roughly comparable work, where the problem is only that the exchange of experiences is cut off by language blocks.
I shall be posting up a video diary of the event hopefully within a few days.