"Normal people experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal situation."
This quote was taken from one of my subjects when attempting to explain to me how he wanted people to see him as a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
For the last eighteen months I have been trying to unpick away at the truth behind the front pages. As a documentary photographer it is my job to produce documents as an observer to record and report on the world around me. The project’s aim was to give voice to the voiceless and make the realities of PTSD accessible to everyone.
I have no personal experience of mental health issues. My interest was sparked from a chance meeting with a Falklands veteran. Cmdr Inskip ship HMS Glamorgan had survived a strike by an Argentinean Exocet missile. The project I was working with at the time was on veterans; mental health had never even entered my mind as something I might encounter.
Cmdr Ian Inskip, at his home in Cornwall, © James Arthur Allen
On talking with Ian I began to understand that his traumatic ordeal had changed his life inexplicably and that for Ian every day was anchored to his experiences of war. For the last thirty years he had been unable to escape from an event that was initiated by something as simple as someone pressing a button.
I remember driving home from this meeting asking myself how this could possibly be? I immediately set about researching PTSD and quickly realised that the condition was not just limited to the armed forces, quite the opposite. In front of me lay a landscape of people from all walks of life. Young and old, male and female.
One of the symptoms of PTSD is a reluctance to talk. A long time was spent posting on forums, chasing up emails and bloggers. The doors seemed to be closed.
Out of the blue I received an update from a forum I had posted on. An individual passionate about the letting people with out the condition know how it is to live with a mental illness but unable to get the message out.
Over the next few months I began to start correspondence with “Oberans Wife” as she was called online. We started a correspondence and I quickly learnt her name was Elizabeth. Over time our relationship grew, trust was formed and I ended up in the city where Liz lived and worked. Our relationship was now one of trust. Elizabeth’s strength amazed me. I decided then and there that my pictures where to be captioned by the subjects. I had to give an opportunity to voice opinions and experiences. That by doing this I could empower people to tell people the reality of living with mental health issues, an opportunity to clear out the closet, confront misconceptions and tackle stigma.
A few images from my work are below for you to see and hear the stories of my subjects.
"It’s PTSD; you live with something that happened twenty years ago - you still cry about it. You can’t stop, because you’re still not over it. You’re not allowed the space to, because you’re not allowed to talk about it. Even with therapists you start talking about the gory details and they cover their mouths with shock. They’re anxious because they don’t want to hear the really horrid bits. I was seventeen when I went to the doctors to tell him that I’d been raped. He just patted me on the head. It’s shocking." ©James Arthur Allen
"People think “it happened, so get over it”. They don’t think someone can go through something like that and not get it off their mind. But I have always said to them that when you remember something negative, like breaking up with a partner, that stays on your mind for a while. It’s like that but much much worse. It plays on your mind constantly. You start blaming yourself - thinking you could have done things differently. It’s complicated to explain to people. I think I hide behind it - people don’t want to listen or hear it.” ©James Arthur Allen
This approach allowed me to educate people, allowing them to find the same conclusions as me. That people suffering from PTSD are normal people having a normal response to an abnormal event. Ian, Elizabeth and everyone else I met on my journey are no different to anyone else. Apart from one thing. They had all endured a traumatic event. That’s all.
The last eighteen months I have met many people on my journey. All of whom have amazed me with there strength courage and convictions. They have inspired and humbled me and have turned my opinions on mental health on its head. Instead of shying away or avoiding conversations I believe its essential that instead we should be discussing this issue openly. By starting a discussion we can effect change and empower people to treat their experiences as a tool to help others. Isolation and loneliness are two things that crop up constantly in conversations with my subjects, the feeling that no one cares. This has to change.
There is no shame in experiencing a mental health problem. I hope that by exhibiting and publishing my work I’m going some way to helping people understand PTSD and mental health. I occasionally hear from people that seeing my work has moved them to speak to a GP or family about how they are feeling, or share their experiences with others.
This makes it all worthwhile.
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James Arthur Allen is a photojournalist based in Bath, UK. His exhibition on PTSD “A War Within.” Is currently being exhibited at the Royal Armouries in Leeds until February. Alternatively you can view his work at www.jamesarthurallen.co.uk or follow updates of the project on twitter. @JamesAllen55