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AHN NEWS: Fall 2014
by AHN on 

Taking Your Own Picture: The Healing Power of Self-Portraiture
A self-portrait by Vivienne McMaster with a motivational theme.
This issue of AHN News is dedicated to the healing power of photographic self-portraiture.

I begin with an interview with Vivienne McMaster who recounts her own healing experience with self-portraiture and how she has shared this process with many others through her Be Your Own Beloved courses.

I also feature the book, This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart by Susannah Conway, which includes a section on how she used photography to heal after the death of her partner.

I conclude with a link to an interview with artist Patti Levey about her 30-year career of making transformative self-portraits.

May this issue inspire you to find the beauty and grace within you.
~ Mary Daniel Hobson, Executive Director, Arts & Healing Network


Vivienne McMaster

"I deeply feel that so much of the healing potential of art happens in the playfulness. In taking self-portraits in particular, it is so easy to take one and look at it with judgment (and old stories of how we see ourselves) and put our cameras away. But what if we played? What if we gave ourselves permission to keep going and to let go of expectations of what the outcome needs to be. That is truly when I think we most gift ourselves with the healing potential of art, when we push past the fear or the old stories and say 'I'm just going to go for it and see what happens.'"  ~Vivienne McMaster

Photographer & Workshop-Leader, Vivienne McMaster

Vivienne McMaster is a Vancouver, Canada photographer and workshop leader who helps people around the world see themselves with compassion through their own camera lens. She discovered her love of photography in her late 20's while going through a rough patch in her life and is now on a mission to share self-portraiture as a tool for cultivating self-love. Her photographs have been seen in such places as, The Huffington Post, and magazines such as Somerset Life, Mingle and Amulet Magazine. She was interviewed in the summer of 2014 by Arts & Healing Network Director, Mary Daniel Hobson.

Mary Daniel Hobson: Tell me a little bit about your creative journey. How did you get started in the arts and photography?

Vivienne McMaster: Iíve always been a creative person, trying pretty much everything in my youth from pottery to theatre and more. I got quite into making music and writing songs in my twenties, which was so therapeutic and helped me gain creative confidence. Yet nothing quite felt like a fit.  

Then in my late twenties I went through a rough patch (aka a depression). When I came out the other side of it, it so happened that cell phones were starting to have cameras on them, and I just started to go out for short photo walks every day to seek out something around me that felt like a little bit of beauty. These photo walks felt like they were helping me fill up my own well again, and I really fell head over heels for photography (and quickly upgraded to a nice camera). It felt like home and like something I could truly enjoy every day for the rest of my life. I have taken some photography classes, but my skill mostly developed from just getting out there on my photo walks and learning as I went!

Mary Daniel: When did you realize that taking a self-portrait could be such a transformative act?

Vivienne: Soon after I found photography, I started adding a little bit of myself into the photos Ė be it my hand or feet. Having just come out of a depression, I was feeling like I didnít know who I was anymore and wanted to find her again and taking self-portraits helped me travel the path from feeling like an absolute stranger to myself to feeling like I was befriending myself again. That was honestly my goal, but what happened along the way amazed me, as it felt like self-portraiture could be a tool to not just get to know myself again, but that it was also helping me heal a lifetime of deeply negative body image.

A self-portrait by Vivienne McMaster

For the first time I felt in control of how I saw myself, and that felt like something I hadnít felt could ever happen. After sharing what was happening for me, I realized this was something that anyone could do and that the one tool that most of us felt was an enemy to our relationship to our self-image could actually be an ally.

Mary Daniel: You offer classes in self-portraiture called Be Your Own Beloved. I love how a big part of this course is using photography to see oneself with kindness and compassion. Can you share a tip or two about how to do that?

Vivienne: So many of us have deeply entrenched hurt or shame around our bodies and how we see ourselves. We feel like we arenít enough. While photos have been a place where many of us have probably seen "proof" of our negative self-talk, they can also be the place to change those stories too and to see ourselves with compassion. One of the tips I love giving people to experiment with is movement.  It has been one of the biggest healing tools for me in terms of self-portraiture, plus it is a whole lot of fun. I especially encourage people to play around with setting their camera down and using the timer and just letting themselves play and move. This might be doing a stretch or taking a deep breath or shaking out our nervousness before taking the photo or it might be moving during the photo like jumping or moving our arms. This brings us back into our bodies and often we can see ourselves with so much more kindness both because we remember how much fun we had taking the photo and value that. But also we arenít posing or standing uncomfortably waiting for the photo to be taken, but rather we are playing and having fun, and that joy is often a doorway to seeing ourselves with kindness in our photos.

My other biggest tip is to take LOTS of photos Ė even if that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Because if we judge ourselves by only that first couple photos we try, we arenít making room for self-compassion. We are in fact closing the door to the potential of seeing ourselves with kindness in a photo. Iíve been doing this work for many years now, and it always takes me a number of photos to get that one I love. Itís just part of the process, but it is easy to forget it is the case for everyone when all we see of other people's images is the one curated final choice. So take lots of photos!

Mary Daniel: You also offer "beloved" portrait sessions that are about empowering the person being photographed. Can you tell me more about this?

Vivienne: Sure! As I mentioned, a big part of taking self-portraits as a healing tool is realizing that we have control over our own self-image and that we get to decide how we want to see ourselves. Yet for many of us, even if we have been taking self-portraits, being in front of someone else's camera is still deeply vulnerable and can often make us forget all the things we may have learned about taking self-portraits we love. Many of the tools I use to help women see themselves with kindness through their own camera can absolutely be used in front of other people's cameras too. I know for me it took a long time to remember that I didnít need to pose but in fact I could pause and ground or move a little to help myself feel more in my body in that family photo!

A self-portrait by Vivienne McMaster

So these "beloved sessions" are part self-portrait photo walk and part portrait session, and my goal with them is to help women feel more empowered in front of their own camera and also in front of someone else's camera. I love to do these sessions as we open the door to them seeing themselves with kindness through their own eyes, and then I get to gift them with the portraits in which I most see their radiance. They get to see themselves with kindness through their own eyes and through mine.  

Mary Daniel: Could you share some of the books that have been particularly helpful to you in your creative journey?

Vivienne: One of the books is Spilling Open by Sabrina Ward Harrison Ė it is a gorgeous mixed media journal of hers. Her photography has been a big inspiration to me but in those pages there was just such creative freedom, and it really opened the door to me giving myself that freedom too.

Lately Iím so deeply inspired by the book Creative Block by Danielle Krysa (aka the Jealous Curator), which interviews 50 successful artists about their creative blocks. It is so powerful to hear that everyone faces these blocks (even people we perceive might not), and get some tips on how they get through it.

I also most definitely recommend Inner Excavation by Liz Lamoreux, which explores connecting with ourselves through poetry, photography and mixed media.

Mary Daniel: What advice would you have for someone who wants to use art as a self-healing tool?

Vivienne: Play! I know it is simple, but I deeply feel that so much of the healing potential of art happens in the playfulness. In taking self-portraits in particular, it is so easy to take one and look at it with judgment (and old stories of how we see ourselves) and put our cameras away. But what if we played? What if we gave ourselves permission to keep going and to let go of expectations of what the outcome needed to be. That is truly when I think we most gift ourselves with the healing potential of art, when we push past the fear or the old stories and say "I'm just going to go for it and see what happens."    

A self-portrait by Vivienne McMaster

Mary Daniel: What are you most excited or inspired by in your work right now?

Vivienne: Iím so inspired by the changes Iím seeing women make in their relationship to their self-image. Inspiring women to give themselves permission to stop the path of self-hate and choose another inspires me to no end.

Iíd also have to say another part that is inspiring me most these days is teaching in person more. Iíve been teaching Be Your Own Beloved online for a few years and will continue to, but Iím getting my introvert self out there more to do a lot more teaching in person. Getting to hear peopleís stories in person and helping them make that brave step to start getting playful in front of the camera is truly an honor!

Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Vivienne: Iíd also love to share that exploring photography as a healing tool can be done with any kind of a camera, even the camera on your phone. One of the reasons I didnít explore photography for a long time was that I had this preconceived notion that there was so much technical information one needed to know to even begin. Especially these days, that isnít the case. So I really encourage folks to use any camera and to not just hide behind the camera but to bravely step in front of it too!   

All photographs in this interview are copyright Vivienne McMaster. To learn more about Vivienneís work, please visit her website.



This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart

by Susannah Conway

"This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart" by Susannah conway

In this book, Susannah Conway shares the very personal, poignant and powerful experience of recovering from the death of her partner. One of the techniques she used was to take self-portraits. Below is a Reflection exercise she offers in the book:

"Itís time to see ourselves with kinder eyes and remember that the miles we walked and the battles we have fought brought us to this pointÖ right now.

This is who we are today.

Pick up your camera and take a photograph of yourself in whatever way feels most comfortable to you: it could be your feet, your face, your reflection. Take as many shots as you need to get the one you truly like. Take hundreds if necessary and remember to delete with abandon! Using either a professional lab or your home printer, make a hard copy of the photo so you can write a note to yourself on the back, jotting down a few words of encouragement, a short love letter, a gratitude list of the blessings in your life right nowÖ If the words do not come easily try writing just three: 'I. Am. Unique.' Let the words dance between your fingertips Ė there is only one of you in the entire cosmos. Only one! Keep your love-letter photo in your wallet or journal, or frame and display it where you will see it everyday."

This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart was published in 2012 by Skirt! Books and can be ordered here. To learn more about Susannah Conway, visit her website, and be sure to listen to her Arts & Healing Podcast interview from July 2011 or subscribe to the Arts & Healing Podcast I-Tunes station and listen to all our wonderful interviews with Healing Artists.



Photographer, Patti Levey on Self-Portraiture and Healing

"The Awakening" a self-portrait by Patti Levey

"I have always been a self-oriented, introspective person, so it seemed quite natural for me to take pictures of myself, to focus inward, revealing the most intimate and painful aspects of myself. I was initially responding to the incredible amount of denial in my family about their problems and the pressure to maintain the status quo, the family image, at any cost, even at the price of my own sanity. My self-portraits were an attempt to reclaim my feelings, my identity, my body and my sense of personal power, while actually reconstructing my own photographic history.

Initially the self-portraits documented my pain more than my process of healing. My original need to photograph myself was not only to see myself, but to have others see me and validate my pain. Showing my photographs, whether to individuals, friends, family, strangers, in a private or public context, has always been an integral part of my process Ė even though exposing myself in this way has made me feel incredibly vulnerable and has, at times, been a painful experienceÖ

The process of photographic self-portraiture enables women to create their own personal set of metaphors and symbols of the self. Ultimately, the goal of self-portrait phototherapy is to generate self-awareness and acceptance as well as a greater capacity for self-empathy." ~ Patti Levey

Read more of this feature on the photo-eye BLOG, where Patti Levey shares her 30-year journey pursuing self-portraiture as a means of reclamation, metamorphosis and healing.



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