I stared at someone I hadn’t seen in a while. He was looking back at me from a full-length mirror in my daughter’s old bedroom. His Cold War-era battle dress uniform was slightly crumpled, but it fit easily and he had shaved cleanly. He smiled wryly at me from the past.
The guy in the mirror and me are No. 208 in Devin Mitchell’s Veteran Vision Project. His quest is to photograph American veterans in a way that peels back the complexity of their lives and perhaps changes the way they see themselves and the way they are seen by society at large.
During this, his first trip to Las Vegas for the project, Mitchell collected my images and the images of eight other Las Vegas veterans. His goal is to gather 10,000 from across the nation, publish a two-volume set of books to help fund the project’s future and hopefully leave a legacy that will resonate beyond his lifetime.
But Mitchell’s journey didn’t start with so grand a vision. The 28-year-old Arizona State University senior took his first photographs in August 2014 as a way to spice up the academic verbiage and document the sources for his undergraduate sociology capstone project. “I started taking the pictures for my thesis; I originally just wanted six or seven so that when I submitted my paper there was something interesting to look at and some proof that I met these people.”
He came up with the idea of compositing mirror images of veterans in their civvies and in their uniforms from something he had seen in a 2007 episode of America’s Next Top Model. And while the shoot didn’t exactly make me feel sexy, the repeating frames of compositionally similar photographs on the Veteran Vision Project’s virtual wall (see it at VeteranVisionProject.com) anchor the project in a compact and easily identifiable expression of the duality of human nature. It beckons the viewer to look more closely at the people who inhabit those frames. Mitchell hopes this will lead viewers to think more deeply about the challenges service members face as they reintegrate into mainstream American society.
But Mitchell didn’t really know where he was going at first. He says he didn’t even really have a solid direction for his paper. “I didn’t know what reintegration was when I started. I didn’t know what a veteran was when I started. I thought I knew what a veteran was, but I didn’t really understand in the beginning.”
Part of Mitchell’s initial misunderstanding is a reflection of our culture’s tendency to mold our veterans’ narratives around a heroic archetype: sometimes tortured, but always brave.
Mitchell isn’t interested in having his photographs appeal to any crafted storyline. He has had plenty of national exposure through features on CBS, Fox News, in The Washington Post, the Japanese edition of GQ and the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. And he has tangled with more than one group who has wanted to supply him funding but direct the nature of his art toward specific rhetorical or political ends. His shot of uniformed sailor Alejandro Bataille at parade rest staring back at himself dressed only in a bath towel and involved in a homoerotic shaving session with another man hardly helps push the traditional agenda.
“My photographs have already made it very clear that I am not interested in taste,” he says. Case in point: His image of Marine Corpsman Mackenzie Claude in battle gear staring back at himself, in a blonde wig and tight red dress, fellating an automatic weapon in a mirror emblazoned with “NEBRASKA THUNDERFUCK XOXO” in lipstick. “I don’t care how tasteful something is, I care about how transparent they are. You want taste, you can go look at some other red, white and blue magazine where they show just one archetype of veteran. How many times have you seen that?”
Sure, some of Mitchell’s photographs are disturbing, like those of Marine Sgt. Jared Comini, with his back against a bathroom door and his chin pressed against a pair of shotgun barrels, and sailor Kelli Serio with a pistol poised to obliterate her sobbing features. Yet some also inspire: Navy vet Cody Gustaveson’s simple image of himself in graduation cap and gown speaks to a narrative of progress and success.
We are naturally drawn to images of imminent violence: the young man or woman with a firearm prepped for self-destruction is undeniably compelling.
We are also drawn to images that follow a simple heroic narrative: Proud Coast Guard Commander Desa Rae Atnip Janszen embracing her children makes us see the direct link between the hero and who she is protecting.
But Mitchell doesn’t want those pictures taken out of the larger context.
He contends that superficially mundane images of retirees like me, veterans who have come through the transition from uniform to civilian life while still carrying that indefinable longing to be back in uniform, are just as important.
Mitchell says that what he has found so far is that the huge majority of veterans are proud of their service but torn and often depressed, haunted by a sudden emptiness they encounter when they step out of uniform. He emphasizes that he “can’t speak from personal experience”; he is a civilian. But he observes, “It seems that to be part of an operation that is directly connected to world-changing events can possibly make one feel significant. And then to no longer have that kind of validation in life has to be traumatic in one way or another.”
He has consciously steered away from commenting on PTSD or combat-related stress because those have already consumed much of our cultural narrative and fed the hyper-simplistic cliché of a “broken hero.” Mitchell is quick to point out, and a 2013 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association agrees, that “combat-related trauma is not killing most of the veterans, it’s depression. It’s some other form of trauma. Millenials tend to have the opinion that the war was actually nice for them and now that they are home they have environmental depression, occupational depression. They don’t feel like they are utilized even if they never saw combat.”
Educating himself and arming himself with the credibility he needs is much of the reason why he is shooting for the 10,000 mark. “It felt like a good number, it felt like it had value,” he says. “After being in 10,000 homes I think it’s going to be pretty difficult to argue that I didn’t learn something. If it takes me 10 years, well, there will probably be another war in five years so there will be a new generation of people with problems to solve and I will be there to document it.”
As I listen to Mitchell talk about his project, I am encouraged. I feel heartened that this young man is stretching out on a journey of discovery as an artist and a chronicler of part of the human condition. He has a joy for this work and a sense of belonging to it that I recognize in that guy in the mirror who put 25 years in the Air Force loading nukes on deep strike aircraft in the ’80s and leading young airmen through their first years in a post-9/11 military.
Mitchell leans back and with clear eyes tells me, “This is my life’s work. I could do this until I die. At the age of 28 I’ve resigned myself. The resignation comes from the passion I have for it. It is like settling down with someone for the rest of your life. I would hope in 300 years people will be turning the pages in their textbooks, if there are still books, and see the pictures I took.”
After Devin Mitchell walked down my front steps and drove away into the heat, I turned upstairs and looked at myself in the mirror one more time. Then I turned away, shed my past and hung it back up in a garment bag in the closet next to my father’s Korean War field jacket.
VETERAN VISION PROJECT
The first of Devin Mitchell’s printed volumes will be released in early 2016 and will consist of 350 curated images from his first year of photographing subjects for the Veteran Vision Project. View his work, pre-order his book and register to participate in the project at VeteranVisionProject.com.