Nature Photography in Grief Work
How can taking photos of nature help clients to process grief? Following a sudden bereavement, professional photographer and transpersonal arts counsellor Sisi Burn started taking walks with her camera. The result was a powerful and transformative dialogue with herself – an approach that could be accessible to any client with a cameraphone.
Photo Credit: Sisi Burn 'Self Portrait in Long Grass'
The benefits of being out in nature for our mental health and wellbeing have always been known. Capturing the beauty of nature on our cameras and smartphones is a hobby that many of us relish and digital photography is now an accessible tool, which makes it even easier to do.
I began using my camera as a therapeutic tool to process grief. I went for walks in my favourite places along the River Thames in Richmond and the Terrace Gardens, the places I had walked with my partner. I found that, if I adopted a mindfulness approach to taking photos, I could somehow identify the emotions that resonated with me – which in turn helped me to accept those emotions.
What do I mean by a mindfulness approach to taking photos? Ultimately, it is about slowing down, taking the time to look, and to notice what resonates with you and why. In The Little Book of Contemplative Photography, Howard Zehr explains:
‘To photograph in this spirit is a matter of opening ourselves to receiving. Like meditation or contemplation, photography-as-receiving requires us to cultivate an attitude of receptivity, an openness to what might be given to us. Such photography is more like a meditation or a spiritual discipline than a hunt.’
I found that the photos I was taking became part of the grieving process. They became images for reflection, offering me a way to come to terms with and understand all that I had lost. For example, I was drawn to a tree branch floating on the water. It seemed lifeless and still. It related to my own feelings of emptiness and loneliness. The things we notice, and therefore the things we focus upon, will always reflect our inner world. Why else would we choose to focus on that particular view?
As I progressed further through my grief process, I began to take self-portraits out in nature. These became what I called a dialogue with myself. They were about capturing myself in the present moment and seeing where I was at, as if the camera wasn’t there. Observing myself from a distance enabled me to objectify my emotions and as a result I felt stronger through making and viewing these photos.
The photo above is one from this series. I was trying to capture my feelings of uncertainty behind the long grass. However, upon further reflection, I can see strength in myself that I hadn’t acknowledged before.
As an arts counsellor, I see the camera as just another tool that clients can use to help express how they feel – and in some cases the camera may be less intimidating than a paintbrush. With the emergence of Ecotherapy and Walking & Talking therapy, it seems appropriate to encourage clients to take photos in nature as well. When reflected upon, the photo acts as a catalyst to what otherwise may be hard for the client to express in words.
Nature photography in particular can be a powerful means through which to explore meaning and thus create positive change. When I lost my partner, I remember being profoundly affected by noise and craving silence. I struggled being in a space with lots of people. It seemed like an alien environment in which to grieve. Nature, with its natural sounds, allows one to be oneself by oneself – particularly at a time of loss. It doesn’t judge us in our moment of distress and pain.