Intimate Portraits: Psychotherapists in Their Own Work Space

September 7, 2012

Editor’s note: We are pleased to introduce Being a Therapist with this issue of Psychiatric Times. We hope you will enjoy the close-up views of these therapists.

Being a Therapist features intimate portraits of psychotherapists in their own work spaces. The pictures are accompanied by interviews in which the practitioners comment on the nature, rewards, and vicissitudes of their work.

The portraits

Being a Therapist offers glimpses into the personal worlds of many old-style, traditional Freudian psychoanalysts, cognitive-behavioral therapists, interpersonalists, trauma experts, play therapists, sex therapists, group therapists, addiction specialists, and practitioners of other cutting-edge orientations. It includes luminaries who pushed the boundaries of their fields forward as well as motivated candidates still in training. It features photos and interviews of therapists of all ages . . . from a 28-year-old trainee to 99-year-old Martin Bergmann. Most are from New York City, still a bastion for psychotherapy-and my adopted home.

Psychotherapists in the media

During the 10 or more years I took these photographs and interviewed these therapists, I paid close attention to the way in which psychotherapists are portrayed in the media. Clearly, therapists have been a subject of fascination since Freud was practicing psychiatry. Fictional “shrinks” abound in movies and in TV series. These characters are often portrayed inaccurately, or in a stereotyped fashion: as “icebergs,” comical figures, demonic geniuses, or otherwise flawed individuals.

Nevertheless, a certain mystique still surrounds these professionals and the nature of their work. When I looked for more authentic media documentation of “real” therapists in their offices, I came up virtually empty handed. This is, in part, what motivated me to complete this collection of interviews and photos.

The therapists’ voices

Some of the therapists I interviewed submitted their own essays or permitted me to quote them. I invited the practitioners to talk about their work: I treated them like artists in their own studios who explain what they do when faced with an empty canvas. I tried to steer them away from clinical jargon.

The therapeutic space

Most psychotherapists give careful consideration to the design of their offices. They strive to create a safe place, an ambience in which patients can “open up.” The dcor reflects the therapist’s character, personal style, and aesthetic. Some of the offices I visited were completely cluttered or ornate; others rather spartan and minimalist. Some were feminine, some masculine. Many therapists displayed their art collections or gave expression to personal themes. These “interiors” are displayed in my pictures.

A look behind the curtain

Psychotherapists are thinkers and ponderers . . . they are keenly interested in the workings of the human mind . . . and they like to solve problems.

I found most of the therapists I interviewed and photographed to be kind, open-minded, and thoughtful. They were patient and poised in front of my lens. Most had a natural appreciation for the arts and welcomed the project I was pursuing.

A word on psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can change the brain. The catalyst for change (the therapeutic action) lies in the relationship between the patient and therapist. In my own experience as a psychiatrist, therapy has not only clinical-but also poetic and magical-moments. That is why, sometimes, I see master therapists as wizards rather than clinicians. (Only wizards can induce brain changes with their words.)

Being a Therapist attempts to lift the veil of a vocation that by definition needs to be shrouded in complete privacy. In creating the collection, I set out to show psychotherapists as real people . . . with strengths and quirks, shticks, and vulnerabilities-like anybody else. Perhaps the series will help demystify what was once called “the impossible profession.”