Visual Images and Vicarious Trauma


In this blog I’m exploring the impact of images that may arise for practitioners in relation to working with trauma. I’ll draw on my personal experience in this area and explore how we can attend to ourselves in relation to this challenging aspect of work with trauma.

Our modern world knows the power of images. How far can you go in any city or town without seeing an image on a bus, billboard or piece of litter?

Images can provoke memories of things we have not only seen for ourselves, but also situations that have been described to us. As a visual learner and thinker, images seem to affect me more than other cues such as sounds.

Recently, I was at a yoga class, using a borrowed mat. During the course of the class I became aware that I had been noticing and repeatedly looking at some marks on the mat.  It took a while for this interest to reach my conscious mind.  I started wondering – what are those marks from? Then I realised the marks reminded me of somethings – images, diagrams and stories of survivors of torture being whipped on their backs. I’m sure these are the kinds of thoughts I have had dozens of times over the past 15 years of working with trauma. This time felt different as I had enough space and time to notice this impact and acknowledge the effect of this work on me in an apparently neutral setting.

Another image related experience that affected me was the day after a conversation with a survivor of torture who had described an unusual way of being restrained while tortured. It took a lengthy conversation to and fro with an Interpreter, and hand drawn diagrams before we finally reached a shared understanding. The next day I saw an innocent symbol on a small van belonging to a painter/decorator, and this brought the whole story back. This disrupted my flow of thought and brought trauma into my morning, without my choosing it.

Through conversation with a colleague we both realised the effect of accidentally coming across a scar diagram or photo. Such images are things we may have seen many times before, but when searching through a file for something else, and accidentally seeing one of these things, the effect was disruptive and upsetting.

I was aware at the time that these images had a strong effect on me and I took steps to minimise my contact with the photos. But there were a few flaws with this – sometimes I had to look at them – a bit like watching a scary film through fingers – you have to know when the scary part has passed, right?  However, like the adverts I mention at the start  - once seen, they are impossible to unsee.

I was once given a hand crafted and traditional gift to mark a special occasion. On one level it was beautiful;  the craftmanship that had gone into it, the representation of traditional symbols of new life, growth, strength and peace.  It was thoughtful, personal, carefully chosen and generous. However, I had visceral reaction on opening it. I could not see it as anything other than an instrument of torture. While I knew it was not, my reaction was so strong that I could not keep it in my home.

However, through doing a writing exercise recently, a positive image came up strongly for me. It was a spiral, an image commonly found within New Zealand with roots in Maori culture, symbolising new life, growth, strength and peace. Sounding familiar to the gift? It took a different form in my mind – that of the developing fern or a seashell and I enjoyed reflecting on the ways that spirals can form – inside out or outside in – I love the growth that it represents, gentle unfurling, tender and strong, mysterious natures process and pleasing asymmetry.

The natural world is such a strong resource for me, supporting me to have capacity to do this work and go to dark places with people. I catch myself feeling joy or delight by spotting changes in my garden, seeing the late afternoon sun land on a wall, hearing exciting chirruping of birds I cannot even see in a tree overhead or once finding a rogue tomato plant in late summer on a busy city centre road bridge. Nature helps me to experience the full range of emotions from despair and fear through to hopefulness, joy and love.  This resources me for working with trauma and gives my life meaning.

And the koru ( green spiral fern shape in the photo) – to me it is a natural mandala,  – something evolving and a focus for reflection as well as a lovely connection to the name of our social enterprise. I’ve decided to buy a traditional greenstone carving as a supportive touchstone.

When we are surrounded by so many images of destruction or harm, whether in our imaginations or in documents or the news, we might need to make a concerted effort to keep positive images in our minds and environment.

It was only in writing this blog post that I realised there was a connection between the triggering image and the supportive symbol, that they could co-exist and that one could affect the other. On a training course recently, I got in touch with an image of stuckness for myself – a grey statue, and on staying with how that felt, the image changed into that of a large stone, part of an ancient stone circle, in a timeless landscape. That felt helpful and connecting. Again the ‘negative’ image was able to transform itself.

If this is an area that resonates for you in your work, here are a few questions you may wish to consider.

-          Are any images triggers for you?

-          How do you habitually respond?

-          How might you reclaim this image as something beautiful or nourishing?

-          What images and objects are supportive to you/ are positive symbols?

-          How might you include them more in your life?

And, that gift that I couldn’t keep – I came across a few of them in an art shop last year and they seemed rather benign.

Written by Elise Marshall 4.6.19