Veterans of war often face a special hell after returning from duty to discover just how little society comprehends the myriad struggles they faced. Similarly, they often find clinical therapy can heal only so much trauma. It can intensify a deep sense of isolation, which prevents veterans from opening themselves to the world they fought to protect. Their wounds, already unseen by most, become buried even further within through withdrawal.
Therapeutic counselor Jen Johnson recognizes the downward spiral and helps provide healing to emotionally-wounded veterans, as well as raises public awareness to their plights. She augments their therapy with exercises in creative writing and photography. By encouraging veterans to express themselves through imaginative outlets, Johnson dispels any sense of isolation. In turn, it helps veterans communicate with the public. Artistic prowess is of little concern in Johnson’s workshops, compared to pure expression and capturing unique personalities of the wounded warriors involved.
encore spoke with Johnson about her work with the nonprofit organization Invisible Wounds of War, and the upcoming event, “What Can’t They See? A Photography Workshop for Non-Photographers.”
encore (e): What inspired you to work so closely with veterans and active-duty military personnel?
Jen Johnson (JJ): My first client as a counselor-intern was with a Vietnam veteran; I still vividly recall his story. Years later, I heard hundreds of veterans’ stories about their invisible wounds while working on a contract basis for the Veterans Administration in Georgia. Most of the veterans I met commented they had never told their stories before, and expressed relief in sharing their stories and having them received with understanding and compassion. I realized how naïve most civilians are about the impact war has on many of our veterans and how silent many are about their experiences. I wanted to help them share their stories as a way to support their healing, increase understanding and compassion for their struggles, and inspire the development of more options for support and recovery during their transition back to civilian life.
e: How do creative outlets factor into your therapeutic practice?
JJ: I had studied writing and photography for healing and had experienced powerful results in my own life and with my clients. I decided to offer writing and photography workshops for veterans because so many are in need of more support and are hesitant to access support services. When veterans write about their invisible wounds and make photographs about them, it can help them make order from chaos, and find language to talk about their experiences. When they find the words to talk about it, they can develop deeper connections with others, including families and friends, healthcare and mental healthcare providers, other veterans and civilians. The hope is it brings some healing and decreases feelings of isolation.
e: You have worked extensively with those suffering from military-related trauma by encouraging them to express themselves through creative writing. But have you held any photography workshops in the same vein prior to the one scheduled for June 10?
JJ: Yes, we offered a photography workshop in 2015. You can see the photographs from that workshop on the exhibit page of our website (www.invisiblewoundsnc.com/exhibit). In the workshop, we create what I call collaborative self-portraits. I teach the participants how to design images that express the invisible wounds of war, as well as images that express the healing process. The veterans develop the idea for their photographs, and I help them from a technical perspective to create the images. I facilitate a process that allows veterans to create images to represent how they want to be seen, rather than how I see them, and I think it is both empowering and offers an opportunity for healing.
e: Could you describe a few specific examples of how photography aided the healing process?
JJ: Creating visual images through photography allows us to express ourselves in a way words sometimes fail. Making photographs can help us see the world and ourselves from a different perspective, and changing our perspectives can help us change our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. You can hear some of the 2015 veterans describe how they benefitted from the project in the video on the website.
One of the participants speaks about how making photographs of his invisible wounds allowed him to talk about them and decreased his feelings of isolation. Several of participants’ spouses said seeing all of the stories in the exhibit helped them understand their spouse’s struggles.
Two of the participants from 2015 have since purchased their own camera systems and are actively pursuing photography. I love introducing people to photography or helping them discover new ways of seeing the world through a camera. When we make photographs, whether with a cell phone or other camera, we tend to focus on what we find beautiful or meaningful—and this can increase self-awareness and feelings of peace and happiness.
e: Have you experienced any challenges working with veterans within creative writing that drew you to using photography instead?
JJ: Sometimes it’s difficult to find words to adequately describe invisible wounds, so making a photograph to illustrate them may come more easily. Photography may come more easily for people who feel challenged by spelling or grammar. I really love encouraging people to work with the writing and photography together, as they offer such complementary ways to express ourselves.
e: What are your plans for exhibiting the writing and photography from the workshops?
JJ: Invisible Wounds of War project is offered in partnership with our fiscal sponsor, The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County. The exhibit will be on display in their ACES gallery at 221 N. Front St. #101 in Wilmington. The opening reception is October 27, and it will be on display throughout November. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
e: Can people still contribute writing to the project?
JJ: Veterans and their families, or anyone who has invisible wounds of war, can submit writing anonymously on our website. Invisible Wounds of War is made possible in part by individual donations and business and corporate sponsors, as well as funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Tax-deductible donations can be made on our website.