The things they carried: War photographer marks last steps of vets at home

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re with The World. When you’ve been in the middle of war, returning home can be jarring. We’ve got a couple of stories about that today. Let’s start with the experience of photojournalist David Guttenfelder, a man with more than a decade of war reporting under his belt. He’s worked in hotspots like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Congo. Guttenfelder returned to the US less than a year ago, but he kept finding connections between his new life here and his old life as a war photographer, and that’s partly why he became involved with Mission 22. It’s an advocacy campaign that deals with the high rate of suicide among veterans. Their slogan says it all: “The American military’s deadliest battleground isn’t some remote stretch of desert across the globe. It’s here, at home.” Here’s my conversation with David Guttenfelder about photographing that war at home.


David Guttenfelder: I spent pretty much my entire adult life living outside of the United States, and I was a combat photographer. I spent the entire Afghanistan war working in Afghanistan, working in Iraq, working with servicemen and women. When I came home, I had devoted so much of my career and my life to that, that I started looking around here in the United States and I realized that I had covered only a part of the story and I had not ever really looked into what’s happening to all of these people who I met out in the field, and what’s happening to them now that they’ve come back to the United States. I discovered this shocking statistic: twenty-two American veterans killing themselves every day in the United States.


Werman: You did visit the homes of five service members who had committed suicide, you met with their families. Just reading some of the accounts, it sounds really intense. But there was one family you visited with, and you discovered this connection with their son who had killed himself. Can you tell us that story?


Guttenfelder: You know, honestly, I had been embedded with so many different groups of soldiers and marines that I had a connection with all of them, honestly. But there was one young man in particular, his name was Brandon Ladner. And we’d gone to his mother’s house, the house where she lives now, where he had lived, in Alabama. She was talking about his experience in Afghanistan, and I stopped her and I said, “Renee, I was there. I was on that battle. I must’ve been there when your son was there,” and it was very emotional for her and for me. And she was crying, and she said, “Please tell me about it. Brandon would never tell me about that. He would always say, ‘Oh momma, you don’t want to know about those terrible things.’”


Werman: Had you remembered Brandon, himself?


Guttenfelder: I didn’t know him. I’m sure I was...


Werman: You probably saw his face, yeah.


Guttenfelder: I felt that way in another family. This woman, Libby Busbee, she showed me the suicide note of her son, and then his picture, and I’m sure I recognized him. I know I was on the same tiny little base in the mountains on the Pakistani border, we were there at the same time. It was very intense. I went to these homes to meet the families and to photograph the spaces where these suicides happened, and to try to give meaning to this different kind of battlefield. But most of the time when I was there, I wasn’t taking pictures. I was sitting on their couches and talking to them about their sons, and trying to help them understand.


Werman: It sounds, in some ways, David, like this whole project kind of traumatized you a little bit.


Guttenfelder: Well, I would never compare my own experience to theirs. Yeah, I didn’t fight in the war. But I was out there for so long, and I was in it for so long, that when I came back… I hadn’t really ever taken time to digest a lot of it and to take stock of a lot of it. But--forgive me for a minute--this is all about trying to get people to understand this statistic that’s really almost impossible to believe.


Werman: I mean, the thing that kept on occurring to me as I looked at your photographs: as a photojournalist covering war, many of your images were people in action, dynamic. And these pictures are really different; they’re static, there are no people. If we didn’t have a caption, these would be black and white shots of Americana and suburbia. But how do you convey all that has happened in these images?


Guttenfelder: That was the difficult thing. I’m obviously not an architectural photographer. I went into these houses to sit in these spaces where these terrible things happened, and find a way to photograph it so that when others see it, they can feel it. But also to try and show the absence. These are not battlefields like Iraq and Afghanistan. These are just very simple, mundane, ordinary places where people live. But they’re empty, they’re absent, and I was just really trying to show the terrifying irony, that the most deadly battlespace is something so incredibly ordinary to everyone.


Werman: They are definitely haunting, and I gather some of these photographs are being seen on billboards in the communities where these vets lived?


Guttenfelder: There are as many as 300 billboards going up and we’re trying to put them in the neighborhoods where these families--surviving families--live and where these suicides took place.


Werman: Have you or the ad firm heard from any of the families who are seeing these billboards?


Guttenfelder: Yeah.


Werman: And what are they saying?


Guttenfelder: Renee Ladner, the woman I was talking about, I knew her son Brandon--she posted on her Facebook page, “Oh my god, oh my god! I found it! I’m sitting outside! I’m just waiting for the light to get better so I can take a picture of it!”


Werman: Oh, wow.


Guttenfelder: It was just unbelievable. I mean, I was worried. I was worried. I knew a lot of soldiers and marines, but I didn’t know any of their moms and dads, and I was nervous about going into their homes, and I didn’t know how the families would react to me, even. I mean, they were so grateful, honestly. Every one of them said, “Thank you so much for coming, and for trying to remember my husband,” or “my son.”


Werman: In the case of Renee, Brandon’s mom, it sounds almost like your photographs gave her some sense of closure.


Guttenfelder: Well, it was especially hard for Renee. Her son Brandon, his suicide happened just a few months ago; it was so fresh. The bullet was still in the ceiling of her home, where we were standing there, talking the first minute that we arrived at her house. I hope so. I hope it gave some closure. I mean, that’s… Honestly, my job is always like that. You want to do some greater good and get the message out to as many people as possible, but often the personal experience you have with the people that you’re photographing and the people that you meet is probably the most important thing that you do.


Werman: David Guttenfelder, thank you so much for your time.


Guttenfelder: Thank you.


Werman: How do you convey suicide in a photograph? Mostly with silence and emptiness. Take Guttenfelder’s black and white frame of an empty couch where a vet once sat. The remote control sits on the table like it’s waiting for someone to pick it up. It’s haunting, but also poetic. You can see that image and others Guttenfelder took at PRI.ORG.