“There are tiny little embers of hope buried within the artwork. Every class I attend helps me towards the day those embers will burst into flames.” - Priscilla “Peni” Bethel (VPRP participant)
It was 1995 when Homerina “Marina” Bond completed her service in the U.S. Marine Corps and began civilian life. During her military career she was one of many who had experienced sexual trauma. She had told no one about it, trying instead to push the feelings and memories away.
Marina is one of four Veterans, with experiences from the Vietnam to Iraq wars, recorded in Visions of Warriors, a documentary film released on November 11, 2017 describing their journey and recovery with the use of an innovative approach The 90-minute film traces how these Veterans engage in The Veteran Photo Recovery Project (VPRP) and use photography to heal. Designed by Susan Quaglietti together with an art therapist, social worker and clinical psychologist, the groundbreaking art program is specifically geared toward Veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and in some cases, suffering from moral injury.
Ms. Quaglietti, at the time a nurse practitioner in the cardiology program at the Palo Alto VA, started to notice the significant number of Veterans she was seeing with coronary artery disease and other life-altering heart issues who had also been diagnosed with PTSD. During her reading of the numerous clinical studies on this subject she found “double the risk” for patients with PTSD developing cardiac issues. With this awareness, she began creating the VPRP as a complement to other mental health treatments to reduce PTSD symptoms.
The primary goal of VPRP is to ask the Veterans to use photo images as a form of reflection on their story. The program provides cameras to the participants and asks that they use them to find pictures that represent their journey and recovery. The language of photography corresponds well with that of psychology. Focusing, framing or reframing and then processing and developing are terms woven between both practices and this is highlighted in the project. Participants are asked to take the photos that best represent their journey and share composite photo essays with others in the group. In this way, as Ms. Quaglietti notes, they are shifting out of isolation into social interaction, completing a project that is meaningful to them and exhibiting their work. They use their photo essays as a way to tell the story of their journey and be heard.
A frequent explanation of how memories are retrieved is to say that memories are like snapshots that are thrown in the air and then picked up at random. In part, the photo project depicted in this documentary may work directly toward better, and possibly more accurate, memory retrieval by asking service members to photograph scenes that represent their trauma. Putting the photos together and sharing the personal meaning with others might allow them to talk about the trauma and moral injury in a more cohesive way.
One of the most difficult parts of PTSD treatment can be for those who have trouble identifying and describing feelings and allowing themselves to feel. The VPRP participants talk about this many times throughout the film. They describe the project as an aid in having some control, or how they look for just the right photo opportunity to put on paper when they can’t find the words to explain their feelings. Additionally they mention how a photo they took randomly takes on significance when they develop and sit with it. Finally, they make the important point that the camera keeps them in the present. As one Veteran put it, “This project helps me look at my past without it hurting me.” Through photography the Veterans, in many cases for the first time, have found a powerful tool that allows them to share their story.
For Marina Bond, this was the case. She describes completing her service in 1995, not seeking treatment, but instead turning to substance abuse. After totaling two cars in auto accidents and attempting suicide twice, she spent years in and out of mental health inpatient facilities trying to reconcile her trauma with who she had become and who she wanted to be. For her, VPRP played a significant part in her ability to rediscover herself. In doing so she and the other participants describe new perceptions of who they are, insights gained and the transformations they experience. By reconnecting with the world, with others and staying focused in the present, they have found hope.
Research continues to branch out and open to ever growing and creative approaches to address PTSD. Evidence-based treatments have shown to be exceedingly helpful, and, as researchers have noted, there is still much to consider. As an adjunctive treatment, the VPRP is one of the novel ways in which clinicians and researchers are opening doors to further discussion on approaches to assist in recovery.
If you have questions, please go to the Visions of Warriors Website: visionsofwarriors.com.
The film may be viewed at: http://www.visionsofwarriors.com/store/ as well as on Amazon Video Direct, Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Vimeo on Demand.
Information provided in this blog is with the permission of Ming Lai, Director of Visions of Warriors.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.