Jessie Kwasney’s photographic exhibit, The Details of Heroes, is currently on display at the UC Gallery at the University of Montana at Missoula, according to The Missoulan, and it is a revelation of an artist’s soul that is not often seen. That’s because Kwasney, a 31-year-old ceramicist and photographer who served two tours in Iraq, used himself as a subject for his work. Kwasney suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences in the military, and created his exhibit to raise awareness and understanding of the condition.
The exhibit features 11 portraits of victims of PTSD, including himself, which are accompanied by unedited interviews with each subject, save for the removal of Kwasney’s own voice. Kwasney recorded each subject as they answered four questions: what event or trauma is the source of their PTSD, what symptoms do they suffer from every day, how they manage their symptoms, and what they want people to know about PTSD. The subjects could say as little or as much as they wanted, and the interview lengths range from under two minutes to over half-an-hour. Viewers are offered headphones and can hear each interview by scanning a QR code under each photograph.
Kwasney photographed each subject with a Sony A6000 camera with a 50 mm lens in natural light to create higher contrast. The subject’s face fills the entire frame, allowing the viewer to see into their eyes and every line on their countenance, both physical and psychological, while simultaneously listening to the subject’s story. The effect is to create a moving intimacy between the viewer and the subject, closing the distance of time and space between them to a transcendent immediacy.
“When you’re trained to fight people, I think PTSD is just a common side effect of that,” Kwasney remarked during his own recording. “I can’t sleep. I get really terrible night terrors.”
The affliction is not limited to combat veterans, however. Advocacy group PTSD United estimates that approximately 8 percent of Americans have PTSD, and that women are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD than men. Kwasney’s subjects were deeply affected by a number of stressors including rape, bullying, and assaults.
One subject was attacked and stabbed, along with his sister, when he was a child. He never emotionally recovered from the incident, and tried to commit suicide as a teenager after being unable to cope with his feelings of rejection. The trouble has followed him well into adulthood, as to this day, he finds it difficult to be around people, resulting in a relatively lonely, sequestered life.
“I didn’t deal with people,” he says in his interview.
Another subject was raped, and forever feels that she can’t trust anyone outside of her closest family members.
“The inside of my head is so loud,” she said. “I listen to music a lot because I have to have something that is louder than my brain.”
“A lot of times we associate these things with a certain category of people, which is super dismissive,” Kwasney said. “It doesn’t allow for conversation.”
Through his work, Kwasney has started that conversation. And the world is listening.