Documentary Filmmaker Turns Counselor and Finds Camera’s Reflection Telling

By Richie Davis, Recorder Staff
November 20, 2009

As a documentary filmmaker for 30 years, Carlyn Saltman has had a keen perspective for the visual cues she’s seen in her camera’s viewfinder, as she listens to people’s stories.

And as a student of psychotherapy, Saltman has also paid attention to the stories we tell ourselves — and how they don’t always mesh with what our body language is saying. “If he could only see himself, he wouldn’t want to do this,” Saltman remembers thinking during a series of interactions with team leaders while working on AIDS education campaigns at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health in the mid 1990’s.

Saltman became so intrigued through the years with the notion of using the video camera as a “video mirror” that she even brought it along to her own therapy sessions and couples counseling sessions with her partner.

“It’s one thing to learn from a counselor, or from a book or TV,” said the Turners Falls woman. “But when we saw ourselves doing things, we could see we were creating troubles in our relationship; we were very motivated to change.”

Saltman, who operates a videography business, Your Story Matters and whose 1993 documentary, “Kofi Among the French,” won an award for excellence from the Society for Visual Anthropology, began training in 2002 in psychosynthesis counseling at the Synthesis Center in Amherst. Psychosynthesis combines aspects of Jungian psychology, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis and Buddhist philosophy to focus on what gives life meaning and purpose, said Saltman.

She began using the “video mirror” technique when she began seeing clients under supervision in Greenfield in 2005, thinking, “if she or he could see themselves, they would notice patterns and discover the beliefs that are holding them back from building the kinds of relationships they yearn for.”

What Saltman had learned from watching videos of her own therapy sessions a few years earlier is that without having someone on hand to pause the film and ask questions, “It’s very easy to be distracted by the details, and to miss some very subtle clues about what’s going on in the inner landscape.”

Still, she added, “I’ve been observing people, looking at them through a lens for 30 years. So I’m uniquely qualified to do this. When interviewing someone, I’m very attentive to visual cues, tone of voice, body language and reading between the lines. This is really merging two parts of myself, documentarian and counselor.

Even a counselor can only be aware of so many visual and auditory clues, though. The person who voluntarily chooses to have their session recorded is in a unique position to watch their external gestures and listen to their tone of voice and recall what was going on in their own minds.

“I received significant insight,” said Pat Romney, an Amherst clinical psychologist who participated in a session as part of a research project Saltman did at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Program. “But not only insight. This form of seeing increases one’s ability to be proactive. It heightened my motivation to take steps toward change. There’s something about literally seeing oneself — it’s hard to ignore.”

In sessions at 21 Mohawk Trail in downtown Greenfield where she works with an unobtrusive video camera and has a computer monitor available, Saltman lets clients pause the video of their session as they take note of something they’ve said or done, reinterpreting that moment from the outside that may contradict or add to what they’ve said.

One woman who had started her session enthusiastically and began slumping down in her seat “like a Raggedy Ann Doll” when she began talking about deeper issues, said she couldn’t believe the difference when she watched her own change in body language, said Saltman. The revelation led to a discussion of what part of her had expressed itself.

Another client, who had told Saltman he’d let go of the anger he’d been holding toward his father, but then watched his jaw tense and heard from the tone in his voice that he was still enraged.

“At the time, he really believed what he was saying,” said Saltman. “But because we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do, there’s a lot to be learned just by watching ourselves.”

In addition to her Video Mirror Coaching practice, Saltman — who expects to get her counseling certificate later this year and who has also been working with Boston University School of Medicine on a project to develop empathy capacity and skills in medical students — said she hopes to consult with area therapists to help them integrate video recording into their work.

She has enough faith in the power of video mirroring in therapy, she said, that, “I’d like to live long enough to see this tool used in all the psychotherapy training institutions.”

Those wishing to contact Carlyn Saltman about her video mirror feedback practice are asked to call (413) 522-0789 or e-mail:

Copyright, 2009, The Recorder, Greenfield, MA