Veterans Healing Through Photography

Nov 11, 2014

Veterans Day was the last limited showing of " Through a New Lens: Veterans Focus on Healing Through Photography" at the Wood Museum of Springfield History
Credit WAMC

The public had a last chance on Veterans Day to see a limited showing of photographs taken by combat veterans on display at the Wood Museum of Springfield History in Springfield, Massachusetts.         

    There’s a photograph of a dog frolicking in the snow, another of a butterfly with deep blue wings, and one image of gleaming chrome on a Harley Davidson.  Very different subjects, taken by different photographers with one common denominator – each image was taken by a combat veteran who completed a phototherapy program designed to help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

     The phototherapy program was introduced a year ago at Ward 8—the six-week inpatient PTSD treatment program at the VA Medical Center in Northampton.  Randy Wessels, a peer support specialist at Ward 8, explained in a promotional video that photography brings the veterans out of isolation and gets them to focus outward.

  " Just seeing the change in the veterans from the time when they started the program to the time they finish.  It is a form of expression, but also a way to focus in and remember you can only deal with one thing at a time."

   Wessels said one veteran would not leave his basement until he got into the phototherapy program. Other participants became so involved in photography they purchased their own cameras and equipment after completing their treatment.

    The phototherapy program was funded by the non-profit Friends of Ward 8 in partnership with Springfield-based Smith and Wesson Corporation.  Smith and Wesson sponsored the photo exhibit at the museum and hosted a reception with several of the photographers last Saturday.

    Sixteen photos were sold at auction at the reception, raising $5,000 for the Friends of Ward 8.

   Anne Bruce, a Smith and Wesson vice president, said if the veterans are willing to donate more photographs she would like to do another exhibit and fundraising reception next year.

" This is an easy way to support veterans' activities and an easy way to say thank you," said Bruce. " But, it is also an opportunity to learn about what works.  I think the (VA) center and the Friends of Ward 8 have proven that alternative therapy programs work. I would love to see this grow and see other people get involved."

   In a video produced by the Terrace Group for Friends of Ward 8, two veterans who went through the phototherapy program talked about the experience. 

   John Gormally of Northampton served in the Army and did a 13-month tour in Iraq.

    " For me it adds an extra level of serenity and peace, looking through the lens and focusing on things and taking my mind out of the world and the surroundings and focusing on something more minute and detailed."

   Preston Hood of Lyman, Maine was a Navy Seal in Vietnam.

"It makes me feel a lot freer because for so long I bottled up all my emotions. Looking through the camera gave me a sense of freedom."

   PTSD affects up to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and up to a third of Vietnam War veterans.