Postmortem: PTSD and Conflict Photographers

Publishing an article is a little like pushing send on a really important email —to millions of people. You hope the spelling is correct and the grammar passable, and that each and every carefully crafted anecdote or event is factually sound. Like an email, the material included is turned over to others for scrutiny, from all corners of the globe.

Last Thursday at 7:17 in the morning, my 16-month project came to an end with the publication (and that dreaded sent-email feeling) of Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD. For nearly a year an a half, I’d been harassing photographers, editors, leaders in the field, and families of those affected, about the realities of mental illness in the world of conflict photography.

Overexposed: A Photographer’s War Against PTSD from Adam McCauley on Vimeo.

This spring, Gilbertson will release his latest book, Bedrooms of the Fallen, published by Chicago University Press. Information about this project can be found at his website, here.

Throughout this period, I often felt like the proverbial ghost of forgotten (or long-to-be-forgotten) pasts: I would present myself as a professional, curious and fascinated by one’s experience of trauma, only to force the subject to recount some of the most traumatic and haunting moments of their life.

This is exactly how I met the man, Ashley Gilbertson, who would play a most important role in this story.

The first time I saw Ash, he was sipping an espresso in Third Rail Coffee in Manhattan’s West Village. With wild hair, untamed, sporting his customary white shirt with black pants, Ashley kept one eye on me and the other on his young son, playing with a pair of toy cars in the small, busy coffee shop.

I was hesitant to ask the first question —the first of thousands that, at that time, neither of use knew would follow— but found his answers intelligent, considered… almost too perfect —Like a man who’d prided himself on knowing what to say, and to whom to say it.

His aptitude didn’t strike me as fake. In fact, it felt exceedingly honest. However clean the answers had become, the edges had been softened through repetition. The routine response illustrated the problem: mental illness wasn’t just a topic of interest or curiosity for Ashley, it was his way of life.

One of my favorite quotes from this encounter never made it into the article. When I asked about the long-term consequences of covering conflict, he said: “While conflict has a clear start and end point, war lives with families for generation.”

It would take months to recognize just how apt that comment was.

By mid-fall 2011, I had offered to help Ashley as an unofficial photography intern. There wasn’t any money in the post (and whatever remains of modern journalistic ethics would certainly not permit any payment for these purposes), but the position allowed me to learn more about Ashley, his work, and his family.

In the weeks and months that followed, I asked about everything, from the harsh “What did L. Cpl. Miller look like when he was carried down the stairs? to the intimate: “When does Ashley feel safe?” (asked of Joanna, in the final interview for the article).

There was no telling if the questions asked would yield an important (or includable) response, but as I grew to understand both Joanna and Ashley better (a privilege for which I have only the article as return payment) I grew more confident that the story I would eventually tell would be more representative of their own specific struggle than any trend piece on the subject, the ones often written from 50,000 feet with conclusions too neat and tidy.

Heeding advice of a former instructor —something I loath to admit given her penchant, also, to condemn cliché— the the specifics of this story made the piece more universal. Buried in these small details, wider lessons are hidden, and in a world where PTSD is still stigmatized, the most personal anecdotes might inspire others to share their experiences: personal, embarrassing, or otherwise alienating.

This isn’t to say there weren’t hiccups. Crises on both sides (issues too sensitive to speak about, concerns over the veracity of some facts and how they were remembered, the consideration of professional integrity) did give me pause a number of times, but it was the Gilbertson’s unrelenting acceptance, of me and this project, that kept this project alive. The result, at least as far as I could have hoped and have humbly been told, was a story both readable and engaging, that forces the reader to reflect on the facts of the world of mental illness.

Last Thursday, hours after the piece was live, I sent Gilbertson an email to thank him and Joanna (again) for being so patient and supportive during the writing and editing process. I told them that the story was online, and I’d love to hear if they get any response.  That afternoon, I received an email from Ash, who was out of the country on vacation but monitoring the story on Facebook and Twitter. After a brief introduction, and a kind thank you for the piece, he added the following line:

“I always joke about hating being the PTSD guy but today it seems as though I was the hash tag for the condition. How embarrassing!” (*He would later tweet: “I’m so embarrassed” in response to The Atlantic’s tweet about the story)

But this response, alone, says more about who Ashley is than anything else. While few people would choose to be the poster child, or “hash tag,” for a condition, Ash’s willingness to share the story belays an important personal grand incentive: to raise awareness.

“PTSD is still not a recognized wound of war,” Ashley often told me throughout the reporting process.

As proof, he often cited a particular example: While working on Bedrooms of the FallenAsh met the mother of an American military veteran. Distraught by her own family experience with the condition, she talked about the realities of PTSD: If a soldier comes back without an arm or leg, he is praised for his sacrifice and treated like a hero, she told him. “But when her son returned home suffering with mental illness, “people would cross the street to avoid him.”

For those asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, ignorance of, or uncaring silence regarding, the costs and consequences of PTSD is no longer an option. While it affects soldiers predominantly, trauma exerts a toll across a wide array of actors, and the sooner we understand this breadth of impact, the better (or more likely) we’ll be —as a community, country, society— at addressing it.

For being a small part this story, I’m eternally thankful. For everyone that took the time to comment, share, Tweet, or email me about the piece, I am honored you shared those moments with me.

For those who missed the short documentary, published with the article on The Atlantic, I’ve embedded the clip below.

 

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