A Journey of Emotional Healing Through the Power of Photography

Healing Photography is a theraputic curriculum, similar in concept to art therapy. The coursework is a fun and engaging journey, combining the proven healing strength of mindfulness, behavioral activation, photographic mastery, and service to others.

The Healing Photography program is offered directly to individuals, as well as to mental health-related organizations. Please contact Joe Van Wyk at 210-930-0727 or via the form below for more information on upcoming workshops.

Photo by Dickie Hill

Photo by Dickie Hill

Howdy friends. My name is Joe Van Wyk and I want to share a dream with you.

I have enjoyed a life-long passion for photography. Meanwhile, I struggle with depression and anxiety. For some time I have observed that I find a relief from an active and methodical practice of photography, including mindfully shooting, editing, and showing my work.

The Healing Photography program is a work in progress. Currently, I am receiving guidance and support from a network of creatives, healers, teachers and administrators. This endeavor is a culmination of decades of experience both professionally and personally.

Why the suffering if there is so much to be grateful for?

My career path has involved photography, videography, social media, marketing and publishing, Now, with both feet fully planted in middle age, I can see how this professional experience, combined with a desire to serve others, has equipped me to develop the Healing Photography curriculum.

Regarding my personal path, let me first say that I am an incredibly blessed man. I am married to my high school sweetheart, and the love of my life. I have a precious son in his early 20s, and my wife has four amazing kids. I have been incredibly blessed with a creative career. I have never lacked any basic physical need. I have always had an awesome network of friends, family and support. Perhaps most importantly of all, I was raised with faith and spiritual growth as a top priority.

So what the heck is the problem? That question begs of the “enlightened” spiritual answer that in fact there is no problem, right? Only opportunities for growth, right? Ugh!

Let’s face it: the causes of mental illness remain a mystery.

Much of my photography involves approaching strangers in the streets of Austin, asking to take their portraits. When I encounter people who suffer so much like this man, I feel an intense connection with them down deep inside. It’s hard to explain, but even though my heart aches for them, I end up leaving there lifted up. It’s about connectedness, and those of us who struggle with depression yearn for it.

I have “battled” with depression and anxiety for most of my life. Have there been good times—even mountaintop experiences? You bet! But, intense emotional struggles have always been nearby, regardless of outward appearances. Can you relate? Sometimes it’s hard to simply count your blessings and just “snap out of it”, isn’t it?

I have spent so many years addressing my emotional dysregulation. You could say I have been a “star student”. Take every psych med known to man according to doctors’ orders? Check. Dive deeply into years of therapy? Check. Work a recovery program for years and years? Check. Seek spiritual growth, pray, and meditate? Check. Serve my fellows? Check. The list goes on and on. Some things have been more effective than others for relief from debilitating symptoms.

The battle is over.

My greatest awakening in regards to emotional struggles has come in recent years. Notice how I wrote “battled” with depression earlier? To a large degree, that word “battled” has been the root of the problem. For as long as I remember, the intense emotions I feel have been the target of something needing to be eradicated. Almost like a cancer needing to be cut out with a scalpel. My goodness, the times I have begged God to rid me of these scary emotions!

But now, little by little, I am starting to experience a peace about my propensity for moodiness. I am radically accepting that I may always struggle more than most with intense feelings. I seem to be wired this way, and I’m done with trying to “get rid of” this part of my human experience.

In fact, reflecting on the way I’m wired begs the questions: Would I have my capacity for love if I were created as a more “even keeled” being? Would I be capable of creating powerful, moving artwork if I were born a less empathic soul? And perhaps most profoundly, would I be able to connect to suffering people if I had not gone through a difficult journey myself? Probably not.

Radical Acceptance, Opposite Action

One of the most powerful recovery methods I have ever experienced is something called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). While intensively practicing DBT I was exposed to the idea of dialectics. A huge “aha” moment came when I was told that I can hold two seemingly opposite truths in each hand harmoniously. And to me, the granddaddy of dialectical teachings is this (and I will personalize it): “I, Joe, radically accept that I experience difficult emotions. That’s the truth. Meanwhile, it is also true that I can take actions opposite to those emotions.”

On this day a couple of years back I might have woken up feeling low. But, I grabbed my camera, forced myself out the door, and headed downtown. The result? I now have this memory of an impromptu portrait session with this beautiful young woman. And, I have this image that I am so proud of. A great example of how the gift of photography can put us into a healing, creative flow.

Am I waking up feeling crappy? I can lace up my shoes and take a walk. Am I feeling anxious and downright paralyzed emotionally? I can set the timer and meditate. Each time I act opposite to an intensely difficult emotion something powerful happens inside. It’s almost like the voice of negativity keeps chattering away, but there is perhaps another voice, less loud but persistent none the less, telling me that I have an inner power to choose. Choose to move. Choose to act. Choose to serve.

Little by little, practicing the DBT tenets of radical acceptance and opposite action made me aware of the powerful spiritual energy that surrounds the “friction” between acceptance and action. Heck, it is really summed up in the Serenity Prayer, right? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

As I became more resilient in facing tough emotions, I started practicing the acceptance/action principle in other areas of my life, including photography. The Healing Photography curriculum is born out of that practice.

The result? Four action-based processes of Healing Photography.

Below I will share more about the four action-based processes of Healing Photography: mindful awareness, behavioral activation, photographic mastery, and service to others. Are you a creative person who struggles with difficult emotions? Are you seeking a creative outlet that can bring you relief and acceptance of your true creative self? These techniques can help you. How do I know? Because I practice them myself, and have seen the results. In fact, part of this program is charting our moods before and after creative exercises. That little step shows me again and again that I can take action, get out of my head and into a state of creative flow that transcends worries.

Read on to discover more about our approach to healing, and how you or your organization can get involved.



The Healing Photography Curriculum

Healing Photography is a theraputic curriculum, similar in concept to art therapy. The coursework is a fun and engaging journey, combining the proven healing strength of mindfulness, behavioral activation, photographic mastery, and service to others. Each of these aspects is explained below.

The Healing Photography program is offered directly to individuals, as well as to mental health-related organizations. Please contact Joe Van Wyk at 210-930-0727 or via the form below for more information on upcoming workshops.



“When you take your attention into the present moment, a certain alertness arises. You become more conscious of what’s around you, but also, strangely, a sense of presence that is both within and without.”
—Eckhart Tolle

Mindfulness goes by many names: consciousness, awareness, the present, the now, and stillness. “Waking up” into a mindful state of awareness takes practice.

My favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat Zinn, renowned for his work on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR):

“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

The process of Healing Photography seeks to open our senses up to the reality surrounding us. We seek to transcend the waking dream-state of thought most of us live in 99% of the time. Practitioners invariably get that cheek-to-cheek grin when they drop down into their own bodies, out of their minds, and observe the miracle of life around them with these amazing senses of ours.

Emotional awareness is another aspect of the program. We seek to experience our emotions, rather than avoiding them. Eventually, we learn to embrace how we are feeling as part of this human experience of ours. Emotional awareness helps us do the mood charting that is an integral part of the positive feedback loop for our photography exercises.

Awareness in art therapy like Healing Photography is ignited by a child-like curiosity. For instance, try this little exercise: Wherever you are sitting right now, fire off your phone’s camera, and take three photos no further away than what you can reach out and touch. Ready? Go!

Congratulations, you just fired your curiosity. You see, colorful sunsets, mountain vistas, and handsome portraits aren’t the only subjects worthy of our photographic attention. Look at the macro-pattern on your chair. Look down at your hand at the graceful space between your fingers. If you wish, take a breath and for five seconds, gaze upon the first nearby object that catches your attention. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. So, while you were doing this exercise, were you thinking about the latest political controversy? Worrying about your car needing a wash? Nope. I didn’t think so. Mindfulness is a miraculous thing, and even the temporary thought-reprieve that it brings can have a multiplying effect of peace on our central nervous system.


Behavioral Activation

“You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.”
—Bill Wilson

Behavioral Activation demonstrates the powerful healing that comes from identifying what brings us satisfaction, and calendarizing those tasks into daily living.

When I first encountered the therapy of Behavioral Activation, I literally tingled inside. That’s it! Someone had put a term to what I inherently know has worked to relieve depression; perhaps more so than any medical treatment.

Tons of evidence supports the efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Been there, done that. But here’s the thing: we are a culture so obsessed with thinking our way out of problems, that the “B” (Behavior) in CBT has played second fiddle to the “C” (Cognition). The result? We remain up in our heads! Yes, cognition has its place. Psychotherapy has its place. But the Healing Photography program is all about Behavioral Activation, and here’s why:

Behavioral Activation involves identifying and listing what brings us joy and esteem. If you are reading this, then the creative process of capturing photos, editing, and putting your work out there in the world brings you pleasure. So, put this at the top of your list!

Ah yes—the list. It makes me think of my Dad and his yellow pad. I swear that guy was such a task-oriented machine. How I fell so far from that tree I don’t know. But, now I experience the simple satisfaction of marking things off of a paper to-do list as I go through the day.

The key with Behavioral Activation is that the list must contain these joy-sparking activities among the “take out the trash” activities. In the program I’ll show you how that works.

So, we schedule activities and then do little mood-checks along the way to monitor how well then work to regulate our moods.

Isn’t it mystifying that when we are in the depths of depression and anxiety, it feels like it has always been that way, and that it will always be this way? Of course, that’s a myth. When we have these little micro mood check-ins before and after our daily activities we are constantly reminded of how they lift our spirits, right there in black and white. I used the be the king of avoidance behavior. But now, rather than pulling the sheets over my head when I’m down, I somehow manage to act my way into right thinking.


Photographic Mastery

“Ah, mastery... what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills... and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.
—Gail Sheehy

When we master the photographic process, the tools become a creative reflex, and our esteem is bolstered with a lifelong positive feedback loop.

I’m a hard-core camera nerd. If there were a 12-step group for people obsessed with photo gear, I would be at the head table. Right now as I write, I’m looking over at my prominently-displayed full-frame top-end camera bodies, superb-optics ultra-fast prime lenses, and a respectable collection of vintage glass. I’m obsessed with quality.

When it comes to processing my RAW files, I am a wiz at Lightroom and Photoshop. I pride myself in meticulously working on images until I am satisfied that I have done my very best work.

So I’m going to recommend that you sell a kidney and cancel your kids’ college plans to finance the gear you’ll need for the program, right? Well, breathe a sigh of relief my friend, because I am going to let you in on a secret: The most happening developments in the camera world are with smartphones, and we ain’t see nothing yet!

In a couple of weeks Apple is going to announce the latest and greatest iPhones, and quite frankly I’m more excited about that than whatever new clunky camera Sony has cooking.

Smartphone photography is so much fun! I just love the ability to capture great images, and tinker with them right on my phone. And, the ability then to share and archive images right there on the same device is magical. I’m really disappointed that the big camera manufacturers are lost in the spec wars, versus making cameras as usable as smartphones.

Prefer using your big-boy camera? Wonderful! Believe me, I’m not putting my gear on eBay anytime soon.

So, focusing on smartphone photography, I will help you master that amazing camera in your pocket. We will cover the topics of photographic awareness, scenes, macro, landscapes, abstracts, architecture, street photography, portraiture, approaching strangers, editing, organizing, archiving, and publishing your work.

All along the way you will step out of your comfort zone and practice, practice, practice. The only equipment you need is your smartphone and some really comfortable shoes.

You will learn the art of seeing like you’ve never known before. You will discover new angles and details you never noticed. And I assure you that while we are mindfully, methodically creating images, our obsessive minds are going to catch a much-needed break.


Service to Others

“The great paradox: You can’t keep it unless you give it away.”

Our cameras become a healing tool for ourselves, and simultaneously as a means to bless others.

The “Service to Others” aspect of Healing Photography is not an afterthought. In fact, it is the single most important part of the program. Depression is often called a disease of isolation. We begin to cut ourselves off from people and activities that give us the very connection that our souls yearn for.

I have learned of the importance of service since I was a child. I'm grateful that my parents instilled that in me. Formally, I have been involved service organizations, church causes, and my recovery program. Informally, it blesses me to have random encounters with those in need out on the streets.

That said, I have found myself frustrated while doing service work too. Fortunately, I learned early on what can trigger this frustration: we aren’t all wired the same, and our service gifting can take may forms. I am a discerning, relational encourager. That gifting lends itself toward wonderful photographic encounters on the streets.

I have many YouTube point-of-view photography videos about me approaching strangers on the streets and doing “street portait” sessions with them. I always try to send people’s beautiful portraits to them for use on their social media, or to pass along to family and friends. I consider that a way I can bless others, and it makes me feel so good inside.

In the Healing Photography program you’ll be encouraged to discover your service gifting, and how it can influence everything from small random acts of kindness to ambitious photography projects.

There are so many organizations in need of fresh people-shots for their social media. You can help. There are animal shelters in need of heart-tugging photos of creatures needing adoption. You can help. There are killer bands needing live-performance photos from fans. You can help.

Service brings me such a sense of purpose, particularly while I’m feeling low and disconnected. I’ll share another funny little way I try to serve, and that’s on social media.

“Healing Photography” actually has a double meaning. Of course, the obvious meaning is this idea of using photography to foster healing. But the fact is, the whole culture of photography could use lots of healing itself. So many artists put their work out there on social media and get mercilessly criticized. Many people on camera-related news sites are so negative about not getting the gear that they want, and they slam manufacturers and other photographers who have differing opinions.

Want to blow some minds? Go seek out the anonymous, hurting people out there in comments sections and give them a specific word of encouragement. There is so much pain being expressed in different ways on social media. I can be an embodiment of the Prayer of St. Francis, and where there is despair, sow hope. We creative, empathic, energetically sensitive souls need each others’ support. When I am struggling, the quickest way to address my emotional neediness is to seek someone else out and bless them.

Finally, we can serve others by creating income streams from our photography. That’s right! As a professional photographer, I have found win-win income streams that enrich individuals and businesses. For instance, some time back I started marketing “dating profile photography”. It has been so fun to help people who are courageously putting themselves out there again in the dating scene. Years ago I was in their shoes, and I always find ways to infuse positivity into our portrait sessions. On the commercial photography side, thriving businesses need fresh, engaging images for their social media marketing.

How to Participate

San Antonio has an outstanding yearly Diwali celebration on the famous Riverwalk. On this night I went out with a vintage lens and captured this moment. Look closely and you’ll see that the image is far from perfect in a technical sense. It is grainy, and the vintage lens isn’t as sharp as modern glass. Yet, it is a captivating scene because it tells a story. Photographic storytelling is one of the aspects of Healing Photography which we will experience together. Wear comfortable shoes!

The Healing Photography curriculum is offered directly to individuals, as well as to mental health-related organizations. Please contact Joe Van Wyk at 210-930-0727 or via this form for more information on the course and upcoming workshops.

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