In 2018, Walkley Award winning Australian photojournalist Christopher Hopkins embarked on a long-term project making photographic portraits that visually represent the tension and fragility of Australian military veterans living with a range of mental health and wellness issues.
I was always aware of the issues that veterans face when they are discharged from the military or return home from service, and my project work has always studied mental health issues. So when I met Dr Tia Cummins and heard about the work she was co-ordinating at Melbournes Florey Institute of Neurological Science I was intrigued.
It was 2018 and they were five years into an ongoing study collating data from 127 veterans that was suggesting there is no link between dementia and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). That really goes against accepted thinking. I conducted some intitial interviews and research, revealing that the systems in place to assist veterens dealing with mental health issues had been a subject of debate since the Second World War. With increasing suicide rates and a prevalence of PTSD amongst those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, it was clear that greater vigilance is needed when servicemen and women integrate back into society. The resultant feature in The Guardian in April 2019 brought some public awareness to the issue.”
The said feature also caught the eye of Dr. Blake Singley, then a senior curator at the Australian War Memorial who commissioned the acquisition of the series. Working with Blake and the AWM has been a delight. The very fact that they have identified the mental health of veterans as a space which needs to be addressed means that I know the imagery will be used for its intended purpose.
I don’t know that war and conflict will change over time to the extent that depression, PTSD, anxiety, and suicide will ever not be an issue. So, the fact that an audience can see the portraits in the Memorial and gain some sort of an insight into the crippling effects on mental health conflict does have, is for me, using photography for the greater good.
The acquired series now consists of sixteen conceptual portraits of veterans who served in the Australian Defence Force campaigns from Vietnam through to Afghanistan, and sixteen portraits that are a ‘tip of the hat’ to historical military style portraiture.
The uncomfortable intimacy of the portraits is purposeful. The veterans who sat want their pain, frustration, confusion and loneliness publicized, so that future generations of soldiers don’t have to. What I found with all who sat for the portraits is an unwavering dedication to making the transition to civilian life as smooth as possible for future Defense Force personal. Bobby Harrison went through hell in Vietnam, exposure to Agent Orange the worst of it, anger management issues, et cetera, but he spends his spare time counselling veterans, young and old. Daniel Spain and Stuart Willson served in Afghanistan and live with crippling issues but, like Bobby, spend their spare time assisting veterans.
The images convey the emotional tension incumbent to those living with mental health issues. The frustration and confusion, isolation and fear that the veterans can never escape were the visible cues I wanted the audience to not only see, but to feel.
The portraits are ghostly and intimate for a reason. This project’s intention has never been about subtlety. These men and women all put themselves out there to be photographed in a way that is quite raw and emotional. If they can do that to raise some awareness surrounding the issue, then hopefully the audience can give back by taking more than a passing glance, and looking into what is really happening in our veterans lives.
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