Ashley Gilbertson: Shell Shock, On the Line
Ashley Gilbertson’s photo essay, “Shell Shock,” on post-traumatic stress disorder among American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan matters; this is an important story, one that demands attention. And it starts strongly, as Gilbertson turns the same eye that created “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which was so sensitive to the aftermath of loss, on the suicides of returning soldiers.
It’s unfortunate that he then chooses to devote several frames to the sites of murders committed by soldiers suffering from PTSD. Although he does wrap it up with two survivors, the emphasis is on violence. The soldier with PTSD, we are warned, is a ticking bomb. If he doesn’t kill himself, he might kill you.
It’s a cheap and worthless world we live in if the only way to convince people of the importance of a problem is by appealing to the fear of becoming a random murder victim. Gilbertson here rolls back the clock to the 1980s, when the prevalent image of PTSD was the crazed Vietnam Vet, sniping from a clock tower with his deer rifle.
This is not the reality of PTSD. Reality, for the most part, is people suffering in silence: people who prize courage, now debilitated by fear, living in a culture that discourages one to admit a problem. And accompanying the startle reactions, the intrusive memories, and the anger, is the terrifying feeling that you’re no longer in control of yourself. These people need help and understanding. They don’t need to be stereotyped as killers who can’t leave killing behind.
Gilbertson does much better with “On The Line,” a story on the people who man the phones at the Veterans’ Affairs crisis line. Here, the story is told through their voices, and the picture that emerges is far more moving. Gilbertson is extraordinarily skilled at evoking what is absent, but he fails in “Shell Shock,” where we have no contact with PTSD itself. The absent voices of the callers in “On The Line” bring the reality home.