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At VA Palo Alto, Veterans Heal With Photography

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two women and a man viewing a digital image on a camera

Nice Work — Participants in VA’s Photo Recovery Workshop learn how to use the techniques of photography such as lighting, framing, subject matter and composition to help them compose a picture that represents their emotional journey. Above, VA Nurse Susan Quaglietti (left) and workshop students Elia Barcliff and John Wilson examine an image that appears to have potential. Photo by Mark Pinto

by Tom Cramer, VA staff writer
Thursday, March 14, 2013

In addition to evidence based PTSD treatment, Veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental health challenges are being offered a new and innovative form of therapy at the VA in Palo Alto, Calif. They’re taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

Compose Yourself

“Photography can help you process your emotions,” explained Susan Quaglietti, a registered nurse at Palo Alto who co-facilitates the Veterans Photo Recovery Project. “It seems like you’re just taking a picture but, in reality, you have to think about the image you’re composing in your viewfinder. It’s therapeutic. In short, you have to focus, frame and process…terms that are familiar in both the photography and healing worlds.”

Quaglietti, a VA nurse for 25 years, said many of the Veterans in her photography workshops are dealing with multiple issues including trauma, posttraumatic stress, depression, and substance abuse. “They’re trying to cope with all of these issues together,” she said, “or in different combinations. When you have all these challenges, you can become isolated. You can feel very alone.”

But photography appears to be lifting some of these Veterans out of their isolation.

Breaking Through

“I can’t tell you how many of our students take a picture of a cement street,” Quaglietti said. “All you can see is this little plant growing up through a crack in the pavement, and they’ll tell me, ‘That’s me, that’s my life.’ They’re saying that they can break through, that they can survive.”

The Palo Alto VA’s Photo Recovery Project consists of five workshops. During the lecture part of the workshops, students learn how a photograph can be used as a therapeutic tool that allows them to process difficult emotions during their recovery process. The students are then encouraged to go out and take photos of things that, to them, represent their journey toward recovery.

They’re also encouraged to talk about the photographs they’ve taken.

“That’s where the therapeutic process comes in,” said Quaglietti. “You’re working in a group, and you have to explain to the group what your photographs mean to you. So the course is helping you engage with the world. You’re learning how to express your thoughts and feelings to others.”

After all five workshops are completed, a photo exhibit is held to showcase everyone’s work. Each student selects six images out of the dozens they’ve taken and creates a portfolio for public display. During the exhibit, students take turns explaining the significance of their images to the audience, which consists of their fellow classmates along with various Palo Alto staff, family members, and friends.

“This project gave me a voice for a lot of things I wanted, finally, to express,” said Retired Air Force Major Gail Matthews. “To showcase my time in service I photographed a small, frayed American flag. The worn flag is me as sometimes I feel tiny, torn, and tattered.”

Silhouette of a bear's head.

‘The Path Not Taken is a Heavy Weight to Bear,’ by Gail Matthews, Palo Alto VA Photo Recovery Workshop, 2012

For her workshop portfolio, Matthews also photographed one of her favorite subjects: ‘Kiona,’ a grizzly bear who lives at the San Francisco Zoo.

“The silhouette of the grizzly bear, Kiona, shows immense strength and determination, while the reflection in the safety glass depicts her different life at the San Francisco Zoo,” she explained. “The key to all my photos in the portfolio is the reflection showing more than one way or perspective.”

The Dark Side

“When I started taking pictures for my project, I was drawn to images that were a little darker,” said Mark Pinto, a Veteran of the first Gulf War who participated in the Photo Recovery Workshop in 2012. “I took a lot of pictures of shadows. When I’m out taking pictures I normally focus on beauty…flowers and animals, but for this workshop I was drawn to darker things…it kind of made me look at the dark side of myself.”

The Gulf War Veteran said he was drawn to images of decay or damage, such as a broken tree branch…“things that were rusted, broken, neglected…stuff you don’t normally want to look at.”

park bench

‘VA Bench’ by Mark Pinto, Palo Alto VA Photo Recovery Workshop, 2012

One of the images in Pinto’s workshop portfolio consists of a forlorn park bench sitting in the shadows of some pine trees. “The area around the bench was neglected,” the photographer explained. “The bench itself was empty and sad looking.”

Interestingly, Pinto said that even though he was photographing damaged and neglected things, he still tried to frame these objects in a way that was aesthetically attractive.

“I was trying to find something pleasing in all the darkness,” he explained. “All my images, no matter how dark, had a lighter side to them…some kind of glimmer somewhere. The park bench has light behind it, which looks kind of magical. In another photo I took you see nothing but a rain puddle, but up above the sun was breaking through the trees, and the sunlight was being reflected in the rain puddle. So I guess it was kind of a metaphor for me, that no matter how dark things are, there’s always light there somewhere if you look hard enough.”

 Instead of just getting an opinion from your therapist, you can get opinions from all your classmates. You don’t feel as alone. You’re all going through the same recovery. 

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Ryan Gardner, a VA clinical social worker who helps out with the photography workshops, emphasized that photography can provide an ideal way for shy, quiet people to express their thoughts and feelings to others without saying too much.

“Some people just aren’t interested in talking about the intimate details of their trauma experience,” said Gardner, who works at Palo Alto’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. “They’re not comfortable doing that. So photography is a way for them to process their feeling and emotions and start working through them. It’s a different form of expressing yourself, another route by which to heal.”

And no matter how shy and quiet you might be, you’ll never be ignored when you’re enrolled in one of Palo Alto’s Photo Recovery workshops.

“Because the class is small — no more than 10 students — we can provide a lot of individual attention,” Gardner said. “For example, if a Veteran has 30 photographs that she really likes, but can only use six in her exhibit, we can help her whittle it down to six. We can help her with the layout of her photographs. In short, we can assist her with basic problem-solving skills. And problem-solving is a life skill she’s going to need when she leaves our classroom and continues her recovery journey in the community.”

Jeff Stadler, an art therapist with VA who helps teach the photography workshops, echoed Gardner’s observations regarding how photography can be an ideal form of expression — and perhaps healing — for people who are not comfortable using words to express themselves. He noted that some people find it awkward to speak face-to-face with a counselor or therapist about their feelings, but much easier to talk about a photograph they’ve taken.

“Those with PTSD have found this to be particularly helpful in their recovery,” Stadler said. “Discussing thoughts and feelings related to trauma can be especially challenging, and this modality of personal expression can make it easier for the participant to put words to his or her experience.”

Learn more about PTSD from VA’s National Center for PTSD.