By Michelle Park

Some may see a person in trance as a passive marionette without his or her willpower, under control of a hypnotist. However, this bewitching reputation is a misconception; in fact, hypnotism is a natural state of focused concentration, occurring repeatedly throughout the day. For instance, when an artist is immersed in his or her creative process, apart from the questioning conscience—that person is under trance. “I personally see hypnotherapy as a goal of using hypnosis as a tool to change behavior,” says Gene Hirschel, the certified hypnotherapist behind Vital Trance.

Based in New York, Hirschel combines traditional hypnosis with over twenty years of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and other modalities to help eliminate unwanted thoughts, stress, and habits. With his unique techniques, subjects are able to rely on their instincts to make decisions, rather than being distracted by the babbling conscience. Recently, Hirschel taught a class at SVA to draw a seemingly bizarre connection between hypnotism and photography.

Gene-Hirschel, vtrance, hypnotism, photography, seminar, hypnosis

Gene Hirschel (Via

What does hypnosis actually mean?

The word hypnosis is very misleading, because “hypno” means sleep, and there’s nothing about sleep in hypnosis. It’s actually the opposite; it’s focused attention. “If I put you to sleep, then you are not hearing anything that I am saying—there’s no change going on.”

We are often in this focused state or “trance,” in varying degrees through the day. For example, when you are doing your creative work, you are in a state where you are not even aware of what you are doing; it’s just happening—that’s hypnosis. It could be deep, or very light, depending on you; some people get in very deep and they don’t even remember creating their art. For dancers, sports figures and many other “peak performance” endeavors, this also applies. Most learning, and most behavioral change occurs during some sort of focused trance.

So, we can put ourselves under hypnosis?

The simple answer is yes. But you don’t put yourself “under” it; you just naturally go back and forth between a state of focused attention to a state of full awareness.

Our memories form when we get input both from the conscious and the subconscious. But the conscious mind is a fairly new addition to the brain; it’s only a few million years old. Before that, we were all instinct—now we are thinking, conscious beings. The conscious mind has a lot of processing power, and it needs it, but the part of the brain that does the real work, like keeping your body functioning, running at your top speed, and following your creativity, all that—that’s instinct. That’s your subconscious mind performing.

Remember years ago when a PC had very limited capabilities, equipped with only floppy drives? Think of that as the front end of a huge array of supercomputers. Now the little computer, which has very little memory and very little disk space, thinks that it runs the show. It also wants to take credit for running the show—our conscious mind thinks that when we do something, it’s the conscious part that’s actually doing it. I think that the only time when we excel is when we shut down the conscious mind, and we let the subconscious supercomputer do all the work.

So “go on instinct”?

Exactly. When you are being creative, your “supercomputer” has unfettered access to your instincts, memories, and your full emotional spectrum. When you are doing your best creative work, no self-censorship or self-doubt is happening. Learning to be a great artist is learning how to let the supercomputer do all the work, and let your conscious mind, sit back, and watch. Maybe make suggestions to the supercomputer as to what to do, but not guide the process.

What are some methods you employed in your seminar with the SVA graduate students?

I taught them to recognize internal conflicts and get underneath them. Imagine a person who takes a drag of a cigarette and says, “I want to quit smoking.” What’s going on there? The answer is that there are many different parts of us—some parts want to smoke while the other realizes the damage that’s being done—and there is an internal conflict. Now picture your future as an artist: I want you to make that picture very dark, really dull, very black and white and grayish. How much do you want to be an artist now? Less than before? OK now, take the same picture, make it really bright, make it wrap around you, make it full motion, and step into it. How do you feel about being an artist now? Most people will feel much more engaged in their future at that point.

By doing a very tiny trick that takes less than three seconds, you are able to moderate how much you want to have the career that you’ve chosen. Changing certain things about a thought effects a thought. Changing the language also—like if a person says, “I want to try to be an artist,” “try” is for many self-defeating. While “I am looking forward to being a great artist” is a much powerful statement. That’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming: you are listening to what you are saying; most people are constantly programming themselves into negative places, and it’s not necessary. It’s more fun to program yourself into a good place.

There were a number of different goals to the SVA seminar. One was to open the students’ voice, just like when you are a singer and you use specific exercises to open up your voice. You want to give artists techniques, because when they open their voice, then the real art starts happening. If they are blocked by what they think people want to see, there are two or three different voices, fighting for attention. That’s going to create frustration, possibly failure. The artists’ voice should be open and clear.

Another important skill we taught is to summon confidence and the ability to automatically connect to others. Being able to express what your work means to strangers is a key part of a successful artists’ world, so we did exercises to open up and build communication.

Can you give an example?

Two examples are how you shake a hand and how to match another’s voice volume. If they lean forward, then you join them, to the point they are comfortable. Clues will tell you whether or not you are on target, so open up your eyes and understand some of the techniques to bond with a client, a curator, or even your subject. When you are putting your mind at a similar frequency as theirs, they start feeling, “Oh, she’s kind of like me,” and a deep communication can happen which benefits both parties.

Let’s face it—art is art—it’s just something that’s really weird to judge. If I like the artist, do I like the art? Since it’s a reflection of what’s inside the artist, then I see the work in context and I get to really love the piece. But if the artist is stuck in his head, thinking people are not going to like him, then he’s going to fail. Not guaranteed, but he’s probably going to fail, because that’s the pictures that you are making, the signals you are giving off without being aware of it. People pick up these signals and might say, “Well, I am not thrilled about this work. It’s not really what we are looking for, sorry.” So giving artists the tools they need to create a bond with their clients or gallery owners, or whoever, is just as important as the colors you are using to create the work. Have a clear artistic voice, and have a good way of connecting with the people who are reviewing your work and promoting it—those are two critical steps.

The third step is a more specific to photographers and other portrait artists: it’s getting your subject in the right state of mind. When a person is in a receptive state of mind to an emotion, that emotion goes up to a peak, and in the class, students learned how to create that experience. The peak is where the interesting things happen: it doesn’t have to be happy—it can be intense, it can be sexual, it can be intellectual, it can be emotional angst, it could be any one of those things. If the artist can understand the process, they can more easily capture that peak, and the emotion comes out in the final image. The goal is to get the subject into that intense state of mind, where everything inside is just coming out, emoting on their face and the way they are holding their body, and then capture it—because you know when it’s coming.

What is every good artist? A hypnotist. If you are a good artist, you cannot only entrance many who view your art, you can also command intense emotion from your subjects. You will be able to reach into them for something that’s really sensitive and precious, and bring it out completely. That’s why photographers in general can benefit from this class. These days, sophisticated digital cameras make good photographic decisions for you; you don’t need a lot of classes to stick a camera into somebody’s face anymore and expect a good technical photograph. So what’s left? Learning to create a bond with your subject; getting emotions to step forward; gaining the knowledge of when that peak is coming, and capturing it.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Resource, which is available online here.