First Friday: How a Phoenix Veteran Uses Photography to Tackle PTSD

Chris portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series.
Chris portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series. Christopher Oshana
This story was originally published on May 27, 2019.  It was updated on June 7, 2019.

Phoenix photographer Christopher Oshana hears their stories. Like the day a veteran army medic named Chris sat down for a portrait session while wearing the same boots he'd worn the day he watched a good buddy die after stepping on a landmine. Chris the medic recounted his friend's bleeding, the ringing in his own ears, and the helplessness he felt after being blown onto his back, unable to render medical assistance to his friend.

Now, Chris' portrait is part of a new exhibit called “PTSD, The Invisible Scar.” It’s designed to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the ways it affects the lives of veterans and their families. Each portrait is titled with the first name of the veteran it features.

The exhibit opens with a free show on First Friday, June 7, at Public Image in Roosevelt Row. It’s well-timed, because June is PTSD Awareness Month. Oshana will be showing about 20 portraits of veterans living with PTSD, taken during conversations about their military service and its ongoing impact on their lives.

“I have family and friends who live with PTSD,” Oshana says. “They have wounds that nobody sees, from memories of traumatic experiences.”

Oshana is a navy veteran who’s never experienced PTSD personally, but sees it happening all around him.

During one portrait session, an army veteran named Omar talked about being deployed the same time as his cousin. Omar heard about a nearby attack one night while monitoring the radio inside a communications shack, and learned the next morning that his cousin had been killed in the attack.

click to enlarge Ace portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series. - CHRISTOPHER OSHANA
Ace portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series.
Christopher Oshana
Another army veteran, identified only as Ace, recalled hearing an explosion that killed eight soldiers while walking a grid with his explosives canine. The dog had sensed the explosives, but Ace couldn't veer from the orders he'd received to search the area — and didn't know the soldiers were behind him.

For army veteran Zue, the trauma was being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier she'd trusted. "As she was talking to me, you could hear the quivering and cracking in her voice, you could see the emotions in her eyes," Oshana recalls.

“The memories can be triggered by things veterans see or hear or smell,” he says. “It affects everyone differently.”

So far he’s photographed 21 veterans, and he plans to continue taking portraits for the long run. “There will always be veterans with invisible scars,” he says.

click to enlarge Zue portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series. - CHRISTOPHER OSHANA
Zue portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series.
Christopher Oshana
Oshana hopes the exhibit will help people appreciate the individuality of each veteran and the unique nature of each veteran’s experience. For some, PTSD leads to extreme anger, nightmares, or abuse.

“A lot of people are out there coping with PTSD, and most people don’t even know it,” he says. “Some cope better than others, but I want everyone to know that these veterans aren’t crazy.”

When Oshana photographed Brad, a veteran Marine deployed three times to the Middle East, Brad opened up about losing several of his fellow Marines to suicide — even talking about his own thoughts of suicide and the help he'd sought while struggling with PTSD.

"He sat in a studio for about an hour and a half talking to me while I was photographing him," Oshana recounted in a small book of portraits he published back in 2016. "The feelings were so overwhelming for me, I had to take a break from the session."

They’ll never completely heal, Oshana says. But he’s hoping the conversations they share during portraits sessions can help make it easier for the veterans he photographs to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

click to enlarge Omar portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series. - CHRISTOPHER OSHANA
Omar portrait from Christopher Oshana's "Invisible Scar" series.
Christopher Oshana
Last October, he took those conversations to a new level. Oshana and four veterans living with PTSD went on a camping trip to Camp Verde as part of a film project called On the Rim of Discovery. He's hoping to do local screenings in coming months and submit the documentary to various film festivals.

It’s all part of Oshana’s larger goal of heightening awareness about PTSD. “These veterans have very specific wounds,” he says. “It’s important that people realize not every wound can be seen."

"PTSD, The Invisible Scar" exhibit. Free opening reception Friday, June 7, 6 to 10 p.m. Public Image, 333 East Roosevelt Street. Facebook: Christopher Boats Oshana.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble