Empowerment Photography and Nature Therapy with The Loveliest Girl in the World

Writer's Note:

This article references the experience of orphan children, their care environment and an observational methodology called Empowerment Photography (as it is viewed in the context of what is termed eco-psychological and nature therapy).  

Ecopsychology considers the connection between our self and the rest of nature to be essential to mental, and thus, ecological health.  In this respect, ecopsychology offers a way to view the connection between the Earth and humans as symbiotic.  Like this exhibit, it requires us to examines different aspects about our connection to nature in both undeveloped and urban areas,  the connection to the place that we all share and the following elements:  nature, photographic design, education and creating a sense of identity and community.



Taking nearly a decade to complete, the Loveliest Girl in the World cavorts with beauty in natural settings, until it is turned inside out.

The project is based on the idea of “empowerment” and the belief everyone has the right to feel special, unique.  The fairytale quality of the photographs, devoid of titles, (though a few crowns and fairy wings shown up) reveals a truth often obscured when life’s edges are avoided to inhabit the “mainstream of moderation” in daily life.  These pictures capture how each young girl can really feel inside: permitting the girls to regard themselves as strong and confident people. These photographs juxtapose authenticity, exposing the universal desire to be seen as good and valuable in a seemingly fairytale-like context.

To achieve this, Miina Savolainen developed and employed an enlivening, therapeutic process she calls “empowering photography” to showcase her subjects.  “Photography can help to show people how they are treasured; how much they mean to me,” says Savolainen.  Summarizing she notes, “accepting one's own portrait is a metaphor for accepting one’s own personality.  Over the years the photographing became an intimate and profound way to interact; this exceptional long-term relationship can be seen in the unique openness and intimacy of the images and artwork.”
Although the pictures in the series are artificial and not from everyday life they are linked to the tradition of realistic photography.  The documentary quality of the pictures is multi-layered.  On one hand the pictures are documents of maturation: the young girls' personalities and their dreams.  On the other hand the pictures make certain features of the girls visible which cannot be seen in their everyday selves. The childhood of youth who have grown up in a Children's home includes a lot of feelings of abandonment, loss of attachment and of being invisible.  It also includes the burden of other people's prejudices, the stigmatization of being a Children's home resident.  The fairytale-like pictures are juxtaposed with real life story that seldom possessed a fairytale-type narrative. The pictures express sadness but also hope and desire to see oneself in a more gentle way.  (And, perhaps, gaze with more gentle eyes upon the world.)  With the aid of oftentimes atypical surroundings the pictures allowed the subjects to be seen and to see themselves like never before.
The Loveliest Girl in the World doesn't portray the Children's home residents the way the people living in margins are usually portrayed.  The make-believe feeling of the pictures is metaphorical; it is a longing for a clean, innocent state of dreaming where you can see yourself as a whole and an ideal person, protected from the gaze and the expectations of other people. The series brings up questions on how the present visual culture makes one a part of the society.The pictures are also sensual though, without gender objectification; a clear departure from how young women and girls are exhibited in today's modern-mediated, public places.

The girls do not see the pictures as role-playing.  In everyday life the girls may also lead “roles” which appear wrong and foreign to the girls. The pictures may show, for the first time, a side that the young person holds real and dear to herself, a picture she wants to cherish in her mind. The Loveliest Girl in the World -- pictures are extreme documents: they are pictures of a person’s inner identity. This inner side becomes visible and the deeper emotional “truth” can be reached by mixing the truth and the fiction. Every human being has an inviolable right to feel himself or herself special. The pictures represent this proof of conclusiveness:  photography which is not simply wedded to what’s visible.
                    Tree Snuggler

The pictures of the young in the Children's home tell stories of being a girl and being a human in general. The deepest content of the pictures, the need to be seen, is familiar to all of us.  The attempt to learn to see oneself in a more gentle way is especially poignant in a time when people are surrounded by incessant media influences to heavily sway self-perceptions toward certain ideal images. The Loveliest Girl in the World exhibitions have prompted viewers to think about the capacity of photograph to influence on societal and personal levels.  From the point of view of photography the project also raises questions about the author and ethics: as it includes the models, not only in the creation of the photographs, but also in the selection of the exhibited pictures.                   


Still as Stone                                                            View of a Stripmine at Sunset

Definition:  a therapy-aligned, pedagogic method based on the concept of empowerment.

Four vital aspects are utilized in the method of empowering photography:  album photos, interaction of a photo session, portrait and photographing the themes of everyday life. Photographing is used as the means to mend relations; to clarify scattered, emotional and abstract things and to reinforce resources.

With the help of this method, photography can be used as the platform for engagement for an individual and for different groups, such as families and work communities. The method has been applied in the 21st century in education, care-work and therapy, and in improving work communities in the EU.

Empowerment, first and foremost, means the growth process of inner power, that stems from the subjective self.  The vital premise is that you cannot empower another person.  And it is central to understand this in all forms of care-work.

The concept of empowerment through the application of photography becomes the essence of identity formation -- that leads to a greater sense of community.  It is ultimately community photography. The focus is the individual; self-definition. Yet, a dialoge often ensues between the subject in the frame, the broader composition of the photo, the photographer and the natural environment.  These facets all pivot on power issues, which first have to be deconstructed from the photography as well before any empowering can take place. The precondition of equality means that the people using the method understand how to cultivate the attraction of nature and initially go through the photographic process themselves while they are being trained to apply the method in their own client work.  In the method of empowering photography the truth of photography is assigned to serve one's identity work and communicating between people, often through a nature-based context.

A photo session that teaches “dia-logi-cal” process is used in family relationships as well as in work relationships by switching the roles of the photographer and the photo's protagonist. Portraits are an intentional device in analyzing and building of different roles, feelings and features as well as accepting one’s self. Goal-directed photographing of themes of everyday life means both working with the present, resource-depleting issues of life and reinforcing the issues that bring strength.

Empowerment is a process which comes about in social interaction. To function, the method does not require verbal process. The change it produces is often a feeling of intimacy and commitment that stems form the experience of being understood. It is an ability to listen another human being with deeper concentration and a growing experience of your own ability to show love and respect.

Identity in the solitude of "deep thinking"                    Community in the shared experience

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