“Put crudely,” say Jo Spence and Rosy Martin, “reframing is a kind of internal permission-giving to change, review, to let go and to move on.

“It is not a way of discovering the ‘real’ to see if it is ‘biased’ but of finding new ways of perceiving the past so that we can change our activities now.”

While Spence and Martin are here providing an account of their own photo therapy sessions, the points they make are just as relevant for all photographic repurposing of family albums: That such projects can (and should) do something, that photography can bring about change, that it can be therapeutic.

That an image made at a site/time of personal trauma (some of Spence’s work focuses on some family photographs the very making of which was traumatic) can later be ‘played’ with and reframed towards a therapeutic end is something I am coming to understand.

In my Other Mothers project, for example, what is most interesting to me is not really the staging of the images themselves, but the conversations that are being had because of their making.

Grandma’s letter

Telling my 98-year-old grandmother, for example, how her ability to intimidate police officers (and others) and yet show such gentleness towards me was a crucial part in my early sense of safety, would not have happened were it not for this current work. I loved (needed) having her own my side. It was like having a ferocious guard dog that fiercely protects from the ills of an outside world yet brings nothing but tenderness to those inside.

And this conversation between she and I, my father tells me, means as much to her as it does to me. Now very frail and vulnerable, my grandmother has been “reminded that she was once very useful” (my father’s words, not mine).

Looking at Spence’s work has also made me realise how lucky I am with our own family album. While the photographs of Spence show a young girl subjected to photographic conventions – the scraped back hair towards a neat presentability that reflected how her parents wanted her to be – our albums pulsate with the searchings of a young amateur photographer, teacher and writer.

There are photographs of formal events – weddings, Christenings, first days at school – but there are far more of quieter moments, of relationships, of the family dogs playing and of kids being kids.

Laurence Cawley by Peter Cawley

In my father’s images of me, I find a man seeking to understand how his son is rather than posing me towards an idea of how a young child ought to be.

There is a loneliness in the images. Many are of me quietly tucked away in a safe corner of my Isle of Wight bedroom playing Lego, or outside in the garden with a bicycle and a ramp. But there is also a truth in those images. I was, often, deeply lonely. Even when I was far from alone.

And Spence raises a further vital question for such work: Who is it for? Who is the audience?

A few weeks ago, I would have suggested Other Mothers is ultimately for me and the women involved.

Now, I am not so sure. I’m wondering whether the audience not only includes those for whom ‘photography as therapy’ is of interest, but anybody who is making a family album (which includes, of course, most people). It is, I hope, becoming not just ‘showable’ work, but work that might effect change in its showing.

Perhaps photography as therapy urges everybody to consider not just old images but what kind of new family album is being created? In this social media world in which everything must be fabulous, will the photographs of unrelenting happiness and perfect skin really be the ones we look back on and say: “Yes, that’s how it was”. Or are such images, in which children (and adults) are expected to perform for the camera according to the demands of Facebook going to end up inflicting the types of identity hell Jo Spence spent years of photographic practise trying to come to terms with?


Martin, R & Spence, J: ‘New Portraits for Old: The Use of the Camera in Therapy’ in Feminism Review (Spring, 1985). Sage Publications.

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