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object a

A few thoughts on my photography project about psychoanalysis

The book ‘object a’ is in the making together with designer Ott Metusala – expected publication Q3’16

As a child just beginning primary school, I played a game on the school playground: I was a police officer, and the other kids had to show me their driver’s licenses or passports. So far, there is nothing special; children play similar games on playgrounds everywhere. The catch is that this game existed exclusively in my mind. In reality, I did not ask the kids for their papers; it was only a mental game.

Most grown-ups no longer play in the literal sense of the word – as a physical activity. The late psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer said that most ‘normal’ people only play in their dreams. Artists, on the contrary, have not been wiped out by the process of growing up. They still play with their desires, anxieties, and ardors by sublimating them into works of art.

According to psychoanalytical theory, dreaming is – just as playing – an effort to solve the problems of living. By moving around different variables in your dreams, you can find creative solutions to (or insights into) the conflicts of life. A perfect illustration of resolving tensions by artists is the “blue period” of the painter Pablo Picasso. In this period, blue hues began to dominate Picasso’s paintings as he struggled with severe depression brought on by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.

The passport game I played as a child was an attempt to relieve my pain and distress about being in a new environment and feeling excluded – like an outsider. By stepping back and assigning myself an imaginary position of authority – one in which I was in charge, in which I decided who had to show their ticket and who would be granted access – I (unconsciously) tried to resolve these tensions.

But play is not exclusively reserved for children, artists, and dreams. Although you might not associate play directly with psychoanalysis, playing in order to alleviate one’s pain is essentially what happens during psychoanalysis. Just as in a dream – or potentially using an interpretation of a patient’s dream – the therapist and the patient experiment and try, playfully, to form a new picture of the possibilities of the patient’s life devoid of such blockages.

It is this experimental and playful process that makes psychoanalysis, above all, an art instead of a science. A work of art must be highly individual, unique and its oeuvres unrepeatable. Training, experience, and talent will improve the quality of both art and psychoanalysis, but just as there is no recipe for how to create good art, there is no recipe for how to give good analysis. Neither can you control the course of your dreams. As the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once said, “You haunt your subjects, you approach them from different angles, you surprise them, you try to encircle them — and you can’t quite get to them, you release them, and, with other quotations or the same quotations.” The way Phillips puts it, his way of giving therapy is similar to a game of hide-and-seek. But, according to Phillips, it should be a game played together: “In order to find out what you’re wanting you have to have a conversation with somebody, you can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s thinker.”

Traditionally, psychoanalysis has had quite an interest in the arts, but excursions into the field of art have mainly focused on narrative forms (i.e., film and literature), while seeming to exclude photography. Psychoanalysis focuses on language and privileges verbal over visual communication – “the ear over the eye.” According to Freud, the “ear” represents the superego or conscience, which comes from having listened to parental moral injunctions, whereas the “eye” is much more of a direct sexualized organ, which represents a kind of taking in, a possession, and sometimes even a sadistic weapon. Possibly the photographic view (the eye) is too much of a registration of reality, which may be why psychoanalysis is uncomfortable with the medium. As the Manhattan-based psychoanalyst Douglas Van der Heide explained to me, psychoanalysts are essentially trying to look below the surface (the presented reality). Therefore, they could be worried that too great a focus on surface details could blind us to the pathways inside.

Despite the hesitance of psychoanalysts toward photography, I think that there are more similarities between (art) photography and psychoanalysis than one might suspect. Apart from the aforementioned playfulness, the first association that springs to mind is the link between the sub- or unconsciousness and the mental processes that are not fully under control of the mind. This is a crucial concept both in psychoanalysis and in the creation of art. To cite the painter Francis Bacon: “I don’t, in fact, know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.” This is also what happens in a good analysis session; just as in art, what emerges can be unexpectedly surprising and it cannot be controlled.

Along with the subliminal, the mechanism of ‘projection’ also exists in these two worlds, albeit in a slightly different sense. Projection occurs in both the therapist’s room and the photographer’s studio. In the therapist’s room, it is the patient who projects his or her fantasies and beliefs onto the analyst. In the studio, it is the photographer who uses the model(s) as a blank canvas to project his or her ideas onto. More importantly, both the photographer and the psychoanalyst are observers; not only that, they are voyeurs and intruders. They intrude – deliberately, but not malignantly – into the lives of their patients and models, and leave a permanent impression. In psychoanalysis, the relationship between the analyst and the patient is often used as working material; the projections from the patient onto the analyst are scrutinized. In doing so, and by making interventions, the analyst can make profound changes in the life of the patient. The level of intrusion and the influence of the photographer are probably less notable, and depend upon the duration of the working relation between the photographer and the model. But in some cases, take my project ‘falling from a height’ wherein I immersed myself in an obsession, the degree of impact could be akin to psychoanalysis.

Some artists consider the creation of art to be a therapeutic process. But the artist Louise Bourgeois says that there is no cure for the artist, and any therapeutic aspect of making art is overridden by the repetition of the traumatic experience it entails. If one considers the neurosis of the artist as the primary source of his or her artwork, the question arises as to what it would look like – and if it would be a good thing – if an artist were to be ‘cured’ of that neurosis (assuming it to be possible). The fear of losing ones creative source after psychoanalysis is best illustrated by a quote from the poet Rilke. He respected psychoanalysis but worried that analysis would “correct him like red ink in a schoolboy’s exercise book.” In other words, in order to “drive out the devils, it would drive out some of the angels too.” As with most interests that captivate us, my curiosity about psychoanalysis evolved from an attempt to make sense of my own personal experiences.

One of the privileges of being a photographer is that you can enter other worlds that you find fascinating. You might find it disappointing to learn that I myself have never undergone classical psychoanalytic treatment, but I have had psychoanalytic psychotherapy treatment. In this type of treatment, the most important principles from classical psychoanalysis are preserved, but there are a few notable differences: the patient does not lie on a couch, the frequency of treatment is limited to one or two sessions per week, and the duration of the treatment is shorter. Frequently, during my therapy, my eyes would stray to my therapist’s blue couch to my left. I often wondered what it would feel like to lay there. On one occasion, just after I had finished shooting her treatment room, an analyst asked me if I wanted to try out her couch. Unfortunately, I felt too surprised and too embarrassed to accept her invitation.

I considered – and still consider – the treatment rooms of analytics to be sacred spaces. When you enter them, you can instantly sense this atmosphere, but it is not so easily explained. It is as if you are gaining access to a secret place – a safe and quiet place where patients relive their experiences in order to loosen the grip that the past holds on them. It is a place of contemplation where confessions are made and secrets are revealed without any moral judgment being made. The analytic office can be considered a place of perfection, of safety and peace – in psychoanalytical terms: the mother’s interior.

Many patients see in ‘their’ room similarities with a church, not only because of the confessional aspect, but also because of the rituals that take place and the lack of direct eye contact in such an intimate setting. After photographing a few rooms, I discovered that, even though the rooms vary from classic to modern, some elements are always present. Obviously, there is a couch for the patient to lie down on and a chair for the analyst (sometimes with a foot-rest). But there is also artwork for the patient to focus on and always – albeit sometimes a subtle one – a reference to Sigmund Freud.

My photography project on psychoanalysis consists of two types of photos; besides photographing the rooms of analytics, I have tried to interpret the psychoanalytical process. As a result, contrary to the serene rooms, these photos have a hint of sex and aggressiveness. These two subjects are often (hidden) themes of artwork; not coincidentally, they are also often themes in the psychoanalytic process. The calm and safe realm of the analyst’s office offers space to reveal the patients’ frustrations – sometimes at the edges of madness, aggression, sexuality, and obsession.

Finding the meaning of things is at the core of psychoanalysis, and it might make you wonder why I started with this project – intruding in the sacred world of psychoanalysis – or even why I became a photographer in the first place. What is the significance of “the eye” and images in my life? Is it an ingenious maneuver to keep reality at a distance? Is this me inventing another game in which I put myself in a position of power – this time not asking for passports, but telling models what to do? And coolly observing the “violent others” and the “violent self” and trying to understand them. Certainly, neurosis and achievement are tied, and psychic pain creates a mind. But you need an absence before a mental image is born. Freud said that if all our needs were met, his mother would be perfect, and if the world offered no frustrations, there would be no mind at all.

According to Freud, the creative mainspring has everything to do with the desire to regain the ‘lost object’. The French psychoanalyst Lacan, calls the ‘objet petit a’ the emptiness – the gap – that causes this desire. It is an emptiness that cannot be entirely fulfilled – at best only partially through experiences, relationships, and objects. Gaining a better understanding of the ‘objet petit a’ is one of the aims of psychoanalysis. I would argue that it is an understanding, rather than a complete fulfillment, of their ‘objet petit a’ that artists are after. It seems to me that both artistic and psychoanalytic endeavors bear a strong resemblance to one another, grounded in the primary drive of man to understand the core truth about oneself. My dusty and dark images represent my attempt to explore, and if possible to reveal, my fantômes esthétiques.

Whether this project reveals the core truth and a part of my ‘objet petit a’ – to me and potentially to the viewer – and whether that is a worthy goal in itself are questions that remain. But, from my experience I know that the true needs of a person can never fully be satisfied through an image.

And now… show me your ID please.

I owe great thanks to the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Douglas Van Der Heide who reviewed my initial version of my text thoroughly. With his intelligent feedback and our subsequent discussion he gave me a much better understanding and insight in the relationship between psychoanalysis, dreams and art and how psychoanalyst work and think.