• April 22, 2015

A Conflict Photographer Helps Fight Veteran Suicide

Alexa Keefe

The worlds of editorial and advertising sometimes share an uneasy space—journalists provide the public with unbiased information so they they can make their own informed decisions, while advertising agencies try to influence decisions. Yet when it comes to getting people to stop and think about making a change to a real issue, who better to do so than the experts in cutting through the constant noise surrounding us every day? And, when attempting to bring home the story of real people and real situations, who better to collaborate with than an award-winning documentary photographer?

William Busbee Panama City, Florida
William Busbee, Panama City, Florida. Busbee, suffering from PTSD and TBI, took his life in his car while parked outside his home.

In October 2014, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), an advertising firm with a roster of big-name clients, decided they wanted to make a difference around a stark statistic: According to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report, 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide every day. While the Washington Post questions the statistical accuracy of this number, the impact on the lives of veterans, their families, and their communities is no less real.

Ryan Clapper, Kenbridge, Virginia
Ryan Clapper, Kenbridge, Virginia
Ryan Clapper ended his life in this home in Kenbridge, Virginia.

The agency partnered with Elder Heart, a nonprofit veterans organization, to create a multimedia campaign called Mission 22, with the aim of starting a national conversation around the troubling issue of veteran suicide, raising awareness, and connecting people to the resources and support they need to recover from the less outwardly visible wounds of war.

The first step was engaging the public through social media by creating the #Mission22 hashtag and inviting people to share images of the number 22 in their daily lives. The next step has been to personalize the lives of the men and women who have died. For that they needed a photographer who could bring heart and soul to the statistic.

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Guttenfelder at work.

CP+B reached out to National Geographic Creative, which represents National Geographic photographers for commercial assignments. David Guttenfelder, a photographer who has dedicated much of his career to covering conflict around the world, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a natural fit for the photo series the agency wanted to create, called the War at Home.

Guttenfelder was in the process of moving back to the U.S. with his family after having spent 20 years away—transitioning from the life of an international photojournalist to one that promised to be notably different.

Even though he dedicated much of his career to photographing in war zones, Guttenfelder says that that coverage felt like only half the story. Coming back to the U.S., following up on the lives of the young men and women he had met in Iraq and Afghanistan, was something that had already been on his mind.

Brandon Ladner, Pelham, Alabama
Brandon Ladner fought in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He took his life in the living room of his home in Pelham, Alabama.

“This is the kind of story I would have wanted to do anyway,” Guttenfelder says of his first noneditorial assignment. And this is what made it a comfortable moral and ethical “yes” for him.

Guttenfelder visited five families around the country who had lost loved ones to suicide after returning home from war. In his conversations with them, he discovered that not only did he share a connection with the soldiers who witnessed the front lines, but also something more: “In each case, I had been there at the same time, in some cases in the same battalion,” he says. Talking with the mother of one soldier, he found out they had even been stationed in the same base in southern Afghanistan during one of the biggest battles of the war. Guttenfelder was able to answer her questions about what it had been like, something her son had been reluctant to share.

Shawn Bleeker, Ozark, Alabama
Shawn Bleeker was an 18-year veteran two years away from early retirement. Struggling with PTSD, he had been exhibiting erratic behavior before driving from the home he shared with his wife and four children in Ozark, Alabama, to an empty field at the edge of town and shooting himself.

Guttenfelder’s quiet black-and-white photographs illustrate the places where the veterans took their lives—their homes—while showing us their absence. In addition to appearing on the Mission22 website, the photographs will also be presented on billboards in the hometowns of veterans who have taken their lives—and in print advertisements. There are also plans in the works for an exhibit.

Clay Ward
Iraq war veteran Clay Ward took his life in this swimming pool in his backyard.

How has this crossover into a commercial assignment with an advertising firm been for Guttenfelder? “I think we can learn something from them,” he says of the people he worked with. “I was happy to hear there would be billboards. My measure before would have been the front page of a newspaper or spread in a magazine. But I am trying to be open-minded in reaching different audiences, not thinking of my work as documentary but as developing a concept or campaign that speaks clearly.”

Read more of these veterans’ stories and learn how to get involved on the Mission 22 website. Follow David Guttenfelder on his website and on Instagram.


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There are 10 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Nikki
    May 12, 2016

    I’ll never forget Ryan Clappers sense of humor. Dry sarcasm 🙂
    He was a great person and close friend. I miss him every day. These images are beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. People need to be aware that the battle doesn’t end just because our soldiers are back home. In some ways the battle only just begins. For others the battle never ends.

  2. Sabine Ward
    May 3, 2015

    I am so grateful for what David, and the rest of the crew are doing for our military community. It has not been easy since my husband’s suicide on May 16, 2013, but I have been overwhelmed with support since friends of ours found out about this cause. And more and more families want to share their story of loss and grief. It is an epidemic that has been sweeping through our community, but has not really been addressed. Thank you so much for your dedication to our men, and women of the Armed Forces. I am very hopeful in that that we will save lives. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

  3. Fabrizio Vergari
    April 26, 2015

    Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz said: Never More!

  4. Kay Tawney
    April 26, 2015

    Working with faith groups to improve our broken criminal justice system. Wonder if veterans would like to help. If so, how would we make contact with them? This movement involves the system’s treatment of the homeless and the mentally I’ll which affects veterans. Thanks for any help.

  5. Meghan
    April 23, 2015

    Please make an exhibit of these!!! They need to be seen! They are hauntingly, beautifully sad but share this terrible fact so effectively that no one can ignore it

  6. john iliff
    April 23, 2015

    I feel nothing but shame for our do nothing government that is owned by the richest in this country. Sorry for the political comment and thank you David for doing this sad story on behalf of our brave veterans and thanks to the vets who have given so much.

  7. Connie
    April 23, 2015

    This not only deeply saddened me but definitely raised my awareness of an issue that I wasn’t aware of. Thank you and thanks to all of those who have served our country in the line of duty.

  8. Jim Stevens
    April 23, 2015

    Though I have lived with PTSD for 45 years, since a tour in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, suicide has not been my way of coping with the depression and the feeling of not being able to shuck the past. I do feel for all these who haven’t found relief, and outlets for the pain. The kindly efforts of those who work to fill those needs of veterans, and expressions of appreciation by many people are very much appreciated. They are healing medicine for wounded minds and hearts.

  9. Amber Douglas
    April 22, 2015

    This is so saddening. PTSD needs to be treated as an injury, just like anything else. It doesn’t matter if it can not be seen. My heart goes out to all who’ve been affected by this terrible evil. We are humans, not machines. God Bless!

  10. Gina Martin
    April 22, 2015

    Such an important issue. Thank you for reminding us that 22 is not a number that we should just accept.

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