Nude Photos as Therapy, or Just Therapeutic?

Photo: Nude Photos as Therapy, or Just Therapeutic? Some Find Studio Portraits Therapeutic but Doctors Warn the Practice Could Be Risky

When Ellen Fisher Turk took her first nude portraits of a sex abuse victims two decades ago, and later of an anorexic, the photographer with a background in special education had little idea that she would become a seminal figure in the sometimes controversial world of phototherapy.

"My thinking was that going through the nudity part was similar to going through a phobia; you're afraid of going on a plane, you go on the plane," Turk said. "[But] I don't think it is necessary to be nude, it's just to be seen.

"I think that pictures are very, very extraordinary," she said.

Even before the New York-based Turk took her first photos of incest victims in the early '90s, she wasn't the only one to recognize that photos can help people who can't find solace or communicate in words alone.

She's now part of a disparate movement that goes by many names. What's known as phototherapy in England, for instance, is called therapeutic photography in North America. Even within the same country, experts disagree about what phototherapy really is or really does.

On one end may be professional photographers who intend for a single studio session to be therapeutic, and who may or may not undergo training in psychology. On the other are Ph.Ds who use the medium of photography to cut through the talk and get to visceral emotions.

Turk's work with incest victims, women suffering from eating disorders or even the terminally ill merged the worlds of photography and therapy. But she always prefaces her observations about how phototherapy works with the caveat that she's neither a scientist nor a licensed therapist.

During a photo session, Turk said she tries to show the victim's humanity and beauty in the series of photographs. Some anorexics walk away with a vision of themselves as others see them: ill but not fat. With incest victims, Turk said the women often walk away with compassion for themselves.

"With incest, I've see that as children, they took it as they did something wrong," Turk said. "What they see uniformly in the context of the photos is a lovely person, and they see a way to have compassion for that person."

Soothing Victims With Portraits

Turk's clients often come to her through knowledge of her work or are referred to her by therapists. She doesn't tell them how to pose but rather lets them move around and use her as a trusted outside observer.

"I'm not coming to the shoot with a critical self," she said. "I want the photographs to see what is beautiful about them, not what I think is beautiful."

Turk has gained widespread acclaim for her work as art, as well as a therapeutic method. But she always approaches each project from the perspective of a special-needs teacher, she said.

"I always used whatever materials I have as a way of helping," she said. "As I photographed [my first client], I saw that over a period of time there was some changes in her."

An incest survivor who posed in a photo therapy session by Ellen Fisher Turk.

Other people in the world of phototherapy say they came as artists not caretakers but realized the process of their work could be cathartic for the subjects of photographs, too.

Photographer Turning into Therapist

Rosy Martin worked as a photographer in the United Kingdom for years and began exploring therapeutic photographs in the 1980s with phototherapy pioneer Jo Spence, a woman who documented her breast cancer through photos.

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