Welcome Home, The Story of Scott Ostrom: Review

In a peculiar way, Craig Walker’s photo-essay for the Denver Post falls under the banner of war photography, though the battleground is one that we are unable to see. Instead, the conflict rages on internally every single day and night. Scott Ostrom, the subject, is a veteran of the Iraq war and is among the twenty percent of American soldiers who returned from the conflict with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[1] He is an addition to the 460,000 US veterans suffering daily with PTSD. Scott’s first tour was fairly routine, but his second left deep scars within, and as with many PTSD sufferers, the effects became more acute over time. “He carried a guilt for things he did and things he didn’t do,” says the photographer, Craig Walker. These haunted him in the form of panic attacks, rages and severe depression[2], and I feel that this photo-essay encapsulates the turbulent reality of Scott’s life brilliantly. The photographer displays tremendous discipline by keeping completely removed from Scott’s situation, never interfering or changing Scott’s story in any way. The resulting photographs grant an almost transparent look at the isolation that PTSD creates, and they come extremely close to capturing the true horror of a war fought alone.

forsaleIn this particular image, we can see that Scott’s assault charge, a direct result of an episodic panic attack, prevents his apartment application from being accepted, ‘despite his honourable discharge papers and his good-conduct medal’. For me, it is eye-opening to discover that this is a man held back not by his past (though it was his past that conceived the illness), but by the person it forced him to become, a person subjugated by a mind he no longer controls. A particularly striking feature in this image is the presence of a bandage on Scott’s right hand. Because I can observe it, my eye is drawn to it and I can question how it came to be. In turn, I began to understand that the people he encounters cannot easily see that this man is injured in ways far worse than physical, and it cannot be described on paper, unlike the physical destruction the illness can leave in its wake. Because of this, it becomes clear to see why there are an estimated 1.4 million veterans at risk of becoming homeless and joining the 50,000 veterans already living on the streets.[3] It was from this point on that I started to analyse the photographs more deeply.
I think a more powerful image, at least to me, is the photograph of Scott during one of his more intense panic attacks. I do not believe it is possible to look upon this picture and state with absolute certainty that this man was ever a soldier in the US Marine Corps for the reason that we attach preconceived notions of what a soldier must be, especially to the marines.

forsaleThe photographer captures perhaps the most poignant shot here, conveying a man, a soldier, succumbing to pure terror at the hands of the things he has witnessed. The clenched fists and look of dread on his face makes him appear almost childlike, portraying a mind of the utmost fragility. The provenance states that at this point, Scott’s PTSD was becoming unmanageable. “I don’t know what I want. I need someone to tell me what to do,” he said, substantiating the point I have just made about the childlike temperament during an episode. He explained his panic attacks as tingling hands and feet – that his arms and legs felt detached. “I’m short of breath and my chest is tight, painfully tight.” Everything about the picture looks peculiar. The monotony of the conventional kitchen is witness to a man, tall in stature, trained in combat, looking unequivocally petrified in his own home; the camera watching on. I was shocked to read that this was what he had experienced almost constantly the day before and I cannot possibly imagine the resilience required to carry on going.

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3.5

When I looked at this particular photograph depicting Scott at the Denver’s VA Medical Centre following two attempts on his life, I could not help but draw parallels to an image I had previously viewed from Robert Capa’s photo-series[4], in which a German prisoner of war is displayed. I feel that it would be an injustice to refrain from including Scott’s own words with the image. He says “I’m back in the same place I was before. I’m having nightmares about the war. I had to take two Seroquel just to get up this morning.” He called the VA earlier that day and told them he was going to kill himself or someone else. Scott stayed in inpatient treatment for a week. “The first 72 hours was mandatory because of what I was saying. The rest was because I wasn’t ready to leave.”[5] Both are images of war in their own right, and both facial expressions convey inner contemplation. What struck me the most was how the look of defeat on the German POW’s face and in his body language almost perfectly resembles that of Scott’s who, despite being home alive and in one piece, cannot help but feel a self-lacerating guilt. For me at least, this comparison, coupled with the shots of self-inflicted wounds on his neck and wrist, really drives home the severity of Scott’s illness. At that moment in time he was a defeated man. He made it home and yet he wished he didn’t, because unlike the dead, he relives the chaos of war every day, no matter where he may be.

Walker perfectly captures a moment of reflection during a camping trip that Scott embarked on one day. Underneath stars that can be seen through a clear night’s sky, Scott calmly recalls his most horrific memory.

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“There was this one guy, and I knew right away that we were going to be friends. … The vehicle he was riding in the passenger seat hit a really big bomb that day – really big IED, and it trapped him inside the humvee, and I got to listen to and watch him scream as he burned. And I never learned his name. There was nothing I could do. … I lost a friend that I never had.” Although the graphic content of his memories seems to clash with the tranquillity of a wonderful night sky, we can postulate that Scott was able to think clearly about his traumatic experience and share it with Craig Walker in a rare moment that seemed to signify the separation of his conscience from the event, as though he had shared his burden with us.

Walker captures Scott’s humanity beautifully in this photo-essay, and shining through the sense of impending doom felt in many of the photographs, are glimmers of hope that manifests itself in Scott’s veteran friends and their shared experiences, as well as his dog and best friend Jibby, who loves him unconditionally and rides the storm with him. The images tell the story of Scott life in a chaotic world, where he is faced with daily challenges such as a messy break-up with his girlfriend, coming to terms with the things he has done, as well as the things that he never did.

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I believe the photo-essay at the time was (and still is) highly relevant because of the injustice in the United States towards veterans of all conflicts for the fact that all stages of mental healthcare are largely inadequate, from the detection of mental illnesses caused by war, to the treatment of these debilitating mental wounds. Furthermore, the Veteran’s Administration has only enough resources to serve but a fraction of these veterans. “In a system based on the maximal reproduction and diffusion of images, witnessing requires the creation of star witnesses, renowned for their bravery and zeal in procuring important, disturbing photographs.”[6] I would argue that Craig Walker was no different than conventional war photographers who risked injuries and death in the pursuit of images that were “expected to arrest attention, startle, surprise.” Though the threat of an attempt on his life was miniscule, Walker made it known that he found great difficulty in remaining detached from his subject, who pleaded for Walker’s assistance several times over a nine month period. “I wasn’t there to be his friend. I couldn’t offer him advice. Once, when he had a DUI, he asked if I could give him a ride somewhere. I told him, ‘No. It would change your story. It would alter your life.’”[7] Over a period of nine months, Walker became deeply troubled by remaining a star witness, photographing difficult and disturbing images of a man who had never been more isolated and in need of help. Overall, it is obvious that this photo-essay successfully provides a narrative of PTSD that is almost palpable, and I feel that it has achieved much to raise awareness about the conflict that is fought on a daily basis for some veterans, as well as those who suffer due to non-military catastrophes.

You can find the main article by following this link to the Denver Post website. This was the text central to my review. http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2012/01/05/captured-welcome-home-the-story-of-scott-ostrom/5172/

[1] http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp accessed 22nd January 2015
[2] Alexander, Scott, At Home, at War, http://www.americanphotomag.com/photo-gallery/2012/07/home-war?page=6 accessed 21st January 2015
[3] http://www.va.gov/homeless/about_the_initiative.asp#two accessed 21st January 2015
[4]http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53535
[5]Walker, Craig, Photos: Welcome Home, The Story of Scott Ostrom http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2012/01/05/captured-welcome-home-the-story-of-scott-ostrom/5172/ accessed 19th January 2015
[6] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) p.27.
[7]Alexander, Scott, At Home, at War.

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