Looking Through a Different Lens: Veterans Use Photography to Help Cope with PTSD

Jun 13, 2018

June is PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.  The mental health problem can develop after a person has been exposed to one or more traumatic events. For members of the military, PTSD can develop because of combat and missions where soldiers were exposed to horrible and life-threatening experiences. According to the health clinic at the WJB Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, 22,000 veterans are seen for mental services in general, many of them are referred for PTSD therapy. That therapy now includes a healing arts workshop that helps veterans work through their PTSD symptoms, by working a camera.

The Beauty and the Brokenness photography exhibit on display at the Richland County Library on Assembly street in Columbia features the work of veterans living with PTSD.  About 20 veterans particiated in the Healing Arts Workshop  cohosted by the WJB Dorn VA Medical Center and the Big Red Barn Retreat, a 75-acre healing facility for veterans. The group, accompanied by a facilitar, visited two different locations in the city, took pictures and then discussed their findings.

During a reception for the exhibit, workshop facilitator Jim Dukes said conversations that took place after each photo shoot were impactful and theraputic. [They were] "very powerful conversations, more so than sitting around a sterile desk in a room, having some group meeting."

An assortment of pictures taken by veterans make up a photography exhibit currently on display at the Richland County main library in Columbia.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio

Dukes used photography to help himself heal from traumatic injuries sustained while working as a civil engineer and defense contractor for the United Nations in Iraq.

"Getting out of my head and spending time doing something different really was helpful."

According to the National Center for PTSD, there are four types of symptoms of this mental health problem: Reliving the event; Avoiding situations; Negative chnages on beliefs and feelings and Feeling 'keyed' up. The triggers that can bring on these symptoms can be different from person to person. There are also different types of therapy for this condition, which can include trauma-focused psychotherapies and antidepresseants.

Elizabeth Codega is a cognitive processing therapy Regional Trainer and Consultant, Outpatient Mental Health Coordinator as well as Trauma Recovery program Coordinator with the VA in Columbia.

"We realize that we cannot be a one-stop shop for everything and that treatment is not a one-size fits all. And so, a lot of times people find a lot of healing in lots of different kinds of things and art is one of those things.

The Healing Arts workshop is the first collaboration of its kids between Dorn and the Big Red Barn. Codega said, the agency will continue to work with them. There will be another exhibit in October at City Hall.

"We try to offer our vets what we think is the gold-star standard treaments, so that we can hopefully get them to a place where they feel like they can function better and they have a better quality of life."

Through Their Lens: Veterans share the stories behind pictures in The Beauty and the Brokenness Phtoto Exhibit

Army Veteran Exie Kannas shares the stories that influenced her photography.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio

Exie Kannas served almost 19 years in the Army. She has several photographs in the Beauty and the Brokennes exhibit.

"I wanted to go in right when I got out of high school, but my dad wouldn't let me. I didnt understand why, but then I realized I had an uncle, which was his brother, who died in Vietname. He was just 18 years old."


Retired Air Force veteran Eugene DuVall shares the story behind one of her photographs in the Beauty and the Brokenness exhibit currently on display at the Richland County Library in Columbia.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio

Eugene DuVall retired from the Air Force in 1984. He did three tours in Southeast Asia.

"I [thought] back to the time before situations happened to me and i could remember how I thought howpleasant I was. Then I would [think] back through the military times of my points of fear, frightness and frustration."

*According to the Department of U.S. Veterans Affairs, the number of Veterans with PTSD varies by service era:

  • About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.
  • About 10 of every 100 women (or 10%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 men (or 4%). Learn more about women, trauma and PTSD.

There many types of treatment for PTSD. Elizabeth Codega is a cognitive processing therapy Regional Trainer and Consultant Outpatient Mental Health Coordinator, and Trauma