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Sustainable Prospects – Photography as Therapy – Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond

Using photography as a form of therapy is nothing new. Since the very beginning, photography has been used to try and help those with mental illnesses. Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond (1809 – 1886) was a psychiatrist who combined his photographic expertise with his medical training and photographed his patients in simple poses against a plain background. He pioneered the use of photography to treat patients with mental illnesses.

Diamond worked with the belief that mental illness could manifest itself in the faces and body language of people with mental illnesses.  He also believed as many did at the time, that the photograph was an objective representation of reality. For these reasons, he believed that portraits of his patients could illustrate the different types of mental illnesses and could be used in the diagnosis of each illness. He also claimed to be able to cure the patients with the images that he had taken.

“The patient’s subsequent amusement in seeing the portraits and her frequent conversation about them was the first decided step in her gradual improvement. And about four months ago she was discharged perfectly cured, and laughed heartily at her former imaginations.”

– Diamond (Harrowing portraits from Victorian lunatic asylum, 2015)

He said that “through studying the faces of patients, physicians could identify and diagnose mental complaints. The faces of the patients were seen to represent ‘types’ of mental illness such as melancholia and delusional paranoia.” (Portraits of Patients from Surrey County Asylum (ca.1855) 2017).  Diamond’s work centred around the idea that photographs could record the particular appearance of people with different mental illnesses (particularly their facial expressions). These photographs could be used as tools to aid diagnosis and treatment. Then, by showing the patients photographs of themselves, the mentally ill would be able to start to recover.

Figures 1 – 5: Diamond. Portraits of Patients from Surrey County Asylum. ca.1855.

Diamond observed that “Photography gives permanence to these remarkable cases, which are types of classes, and makes them observable not only now but forever, and it presents also a perfect and faithful record, free altogether from the painful caricaturing which so disfigures almost all the published portraits of the insane as to render them nearly valueless either for purposes of art or of science.” – (Diamond, 1856)

As a pioneer of photography as therapy, Diamond presented his patients with images that he felt were a mirror through which they could view themselves and react to. He attempted to nurture the patients to heal themselves. By viewing their portraits, he proposed that they could reflection on what they saw, forcing them to face their issues, and in doing so, overcome them. As Diamond said these images offered a “perfect and faithful record” (Diamond, 1856) to the patients. However, Diamond staged the images a little so that they reflected the patient exactly as he saw them and not as the patients or others viewed them.

Diamond’s work has influenced my current project method. As part of the ‘Behind the Mask’ project, volunteers are shown their images taken when they take their mask off. In the majority of cases, my volunteers have commented that it has really helped them to accept and discuss their issues. Some have commented that it made them feel lightened and relieved to have shared their issues and then viewed themselves doing so. The process of viewing the images is in much the same way Diamond used his images. However, in contrast to Diamond’s images, the portraits that my volunteers see are not just staged images taken of how I view the person. The volunteers are asked to portray themselves in the ‘normal’ images how they feel they present themselves to the world.  The unmasked images are of them letting go and dropping the mask. By talking through their issues and what they have written on the mask, the images are a true reflection of how the volunteer feels about their issues.

Even though his work was biased towards the female patients of the asylum he worked at, and the fact that many critics have questioned the validity of his work, Diamond has been very influential in raising awareness of mental illness and the use of photography as a therapy to help self healing.


Diamond, H. (1856). On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, [online] 8(0), pp.117-117. Available at: https://psicoart.unibo.it/article/download/2090/1478 [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

Harrowing portraits from Victorian lunatic asylum. 2015. Mail Online [online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3131630/Harrowing-portraits-Victorian-lunatic-asylum.html#ixzz4yuzfd400 [accessed 4 November 2017].

Portraits of Patients from Surrey County Asylum (ca.1855). 2017. The Public Domain Review[online]. Available at: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/portraits-of-patients-from-surrey-county-asylum-ca-1855/ [accessed 4 November 2017].


All Images: Portraits of Patients from Surrey County Asylum (ca.1855). 2017. The Public Domain Review[online]. Available at: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/portraits-of-patients-from-surrey-county-asylum-ca-1855/ [accessed 4 November 2017].


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