Artist Sonia Boué has launched a new, life-enhancing creative self-help resource for neurodivergent people. Conceived during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, the Neurophototherapy Project‘s roots began with a process of self-documentation at home while isolated from her studio. Sharing a series of satirical photographic self-portraits online, Boué gained a newfound confidence to unmask her neurodivergent identity through her art.

Now London-based gallery Autograph have collaborated with Boué to publish the resulting creative self-help book for other neurodivergent people. Encompassing materials from Boué’s two-phase Neurophototherapy Project, the publication has already been shortlisted for a Contemporary Collage Magazine Innovation Award, 2023. Here Boué explains the aims of the publication, how it was inspired by Photo Therapy, and what the response has been so far.

What do you hope to achieve with your new creative self-help publication, Neurophototherapy: Playfully Unmasking with Photography and Collage?

Neurophototherapy is part of a global movement towards a paradigm shift for neurodivergent (ND) people, so in this sense my agenda is vast. The book also seeks to support people on an individual level. It lays out a playfully radical form of creative self-care, and innovates by treating a late discovery of ND as an identity transition for which a normative socialisation must be overcome. My publication is therefore uplifting and celebratory in spirit, and something of a love letter to late ND discovery. I hope readers will experience validation and a feeling of things falling into place.

I think diagnosis and self-discovery are often viewed as an end point, perhaps because this is often a cathartic moment. The need for a transitional process has also yet to be widely recognised. This needs to change because unlearning unhelpful neurotypical ways of being can be a daunting and gnarly process. There’s no one way to do this and no road map, so naturally we can get stuck. To my mind, professional development is often tied to personal development and I’m excited to have found a way to address this need through creative practice. The practice won’t be for everyone, but the ideas are important and I think that artists who don’t want to use photography or collage can adapt the method to their preferred form. I can really see it working with sound, moving image and painting practices, for example.

Can you explain what Neurophototherapy is?

Neurophototherapy is a transformational creative practice which offers a playful and life-affirming approach to photography and collage practices. It draws on the inherent benefits of creative practice for self-reflection and affirmation, and combines mentoring insights with ideas for exploring identity. It’s a practice akin to life journalling with a specific focus on photographic reenactments and collage responses.

It’s for ND people and anyone seeking to explore their identity in new and creative ways with readily available materials. The method also draws on family archives, early childhood memories and personally resonant ephemera, offering a joyful path to ND self-discovery. ‘Working with safe things’ by carefully selecting and filtering source materials is the basis for the method. The aim is to practice unmasking and also gain confidence in other areas of life.

Sonia Boue, Mona Lisa (after Duchamp), photograph, 2022. © Sonia Boue

How was Neurophototherapy inspired by the practice of Photo Therapy?

Neurophototherapy came about during the first lockdown when I was isolated from my studio and began taking a series of satirical self portraits. These images then morphed into photomontages and collages. It dawned on me that I’d discovered a powerful practice which enabled me to unmask my ND identity in new and exciting ways.

It wasn’t until I happened on an online exhibition of Jo Spence’s Photo Therapy works in September 2020 that I made the connection. It felt freakishly uncanny, as some of my lockdown photographs could have been direct homages to Jo’s Photo Therapy works. I had unknowingly engaged in a parallel process. Calling it Neurophototherapy enabled me to place what I felt was a specific ND practice within an existing form, pioneered by Jo Spence and Rosie Martin. Without their Photo Therapy work I perhaps wouldn’t have draw the conceptual threads of Neurophototherapy together. Through some form of creative synergy, I created a method which extends Photo Therapy into collage and provides significant adaptations for ND people who may prefer to create work on their own.

Photo Therapy is quite fascinating in that it spans both arts and therapeutic practices, being used in all manner of clinical settings. I don’t know enough about the history of it to say whether the arts practice spawned the clinical practice. However, I see a great similarity in that Neurophototherapy emerged from an art practice, and while it has been developed as a self-help support, it could also be used with the support of a professional therapist if needed.

How did the collaboration with London-based arts organisation Autograph come about? How are they supporting the project?

This question speaks to the social barriers that can be broken down when an organisation actively engages in a programme of allyship. Explorers is a national creative programme for increasing visibility and representation of neurodivergent artists in contemporary visual art, led by Project Art Works. Autograph is one of the eight Explorers’ partner organisations and they have proved a brilliant organisation to get to know. They’ve really taken the time to build trust and demonstrate that they value my work.

A writing commission and panel opportunity with Autograph led to us co-curating a gloriously innovative online event which was run entirely along ND lines. This event, States of Wordlessness: Exploring Neurodivergent Space through Creative Practice, required close and sensitive work and I’m extremely proud of the results which can still be viewed on YouTube. This collaboration cemented my feeling that Autograph would be the perfect hosts for Neurophototherapy. The work was also a particularly good fit because Autograph specialises in photographic arts practice.

Their role has been to produce an online gallery of works by the Neurophototherapy project participants, commission new writing for a blog post, and host a downloadable PDF. They also launched the project on Instagram, which was a huge support and we gained a great deal of traction as a result. I think they’ve done a great job of presenting a complex piece of work in an accessible way.

Sonia Boue, Meeting myself in the middle, photomontage, 2021. © Sonia Boue

Since publication, what has the response been? Have people found it helpful?

The work has been incredibly warmly received, particularly by ND artists, art workers and arts organisations. It’s had a big reach in the collage community and is being picked up by photographic artists too. People have told me that they will pass the book on to ND family members and friends. There’s a lot of love for an open source publication that celebrates and supports ND identity through a joyful and easily accessible creative practice.

People have contacted me to tell me about the impact of reading it. It’s impossible to overestimate how important it is for ND people to find such powerful reflection. I receive a lot of DMs from newly diagnosed people who are so grateful for positive information and a pathway.

People have told me they’re heading to the studio with the book, but I think it’s early days for details about their experiences of making to emerge. Interestingly, when we launched the project, one ND artist contacted me to say they recognised their own practice in Neurophototherapy, which I thought was rather wonderful.

With our focus group we found that the ideas took time to absorb and people needed to pace sourcing images and responding. Where you are in your discovery process may determine when and how you want to begin. There’s a lot of consideration for emotional comfort and preparedness in the book and people may well be working through these preparatory stages before diving in. Focus group members produced wonderful work and experienced profound and ongoing benefits, so it was actually very emotional for me to witness a methodology I had created through my own practice research working for other people. I’m excited to learn how a wider readership gets on!

Where can people get hold of a copy?

I’m delighted to say that this project was funded by Arts Council England, which enabled me to produce a free PDF download of the publication. I really wanted as many people as possible to be able to access it! A print version is also available on Amazon for £18, for people who want the rather lovely physical copy. We worked extremely hard to create an accessible design for the book and it’s A4 too, which I think is a nice size to flick through and work from.

Autograph’s website also includes a participants’ gallery and blog post. My website has all of these links, a press release and an additional INSIDE Neurophototherapy PDF, which explains the access methodology I developed to run the project. I always open source my project learning as I want to add to the knowledge base about good ND practice.

Download a free PDF copy of Neurophototherapy