Photographers create image in downtown Des Moines to raise money for PTSD, suicide prevention among veterans
When Olivia McBride returned from her deployment in Afghanistan in 2011 as a 20-year-old woman, she felt like she didn't belong.
It's a feeling local photographers David Christopher and Marcus Bruggom understand all too well — and the inspiration behind their drive to create an image that reminds military veterans that they are not alone.
The pair, who own the photography company Bruglife Perspectives, shut down a portion of Locust Street in downtown Des Moines on Sunday evening to gather veterans for a photograph that will be auctioned off between Sept. 11 and Veterans Day.
Proceeds after expenses for a one-of-a-kind canvas print that measures 3 feet by 4 feet, as well as 100 $100 limited-edition, signed prints that measure 11 inches by 17 inches of varied images from the evening will go toward organizations that focus on preventing post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides among veterans.
Though neither are veterans themselves, Christopher and Bruggom said they've had friends who've deployed overseas and returned as completely different people.
"Nobody talks about it," Bruggom said. "If we can shine a light on it and give money to organizations that help people, that's what we're trying to do."
The photo features the silhouette of veteran Sebastian Eisbach. Inside his outline, a group of veterans stand with the American flag and flags representing different branches of the military.
Bruggom learned the photo technique, which is made from layered reflections off of glass, when he was just starting to take an interest in photography. A former heavy industrial welder, Bruggom said he began taking photos downtown after his divorce, when he couldn't sleep.
He started showing his photos to friends like Christopher, who bought Bruggom a photography book as soon as he saw his silhouette images, which Bruggom calls "hollow man" photos.
"The point is to show that you may feel empty when you get back, you may feel hollow, but there are all these people that want to support you," Christopher said. "They want to tell you everything’s OK — they want to laugh and cry with you."
The pair have been working together for about two years, and said they began thinking about how they could use their photography to help their community a few months ago.
They decided to start a grassroots effort to help veterans after discussions with a few of their friends who are veterans who expressed a need for help with their mental health.
From there, the project was the result of a lot of effort and a bit of serendipity. At his bartending job at Hessen Haus, Christopher served members of the Des Moines chapter of Irreverent Warriors, a national group that uses humor to connect with veterans. One of the members left Christopher their card.
McBride, a member of the Iowa Army National Guard since 2008 and the local coordinator for the group, said Christopher and Bruggom reached out to her in early May with the photo concept. She said the image captures the essence of the group.
"It's really nice that we have allies," she said. "There's comfort in knowing that our community has our back."
Though she now works to help veterans through moments when they feel alone, she's had enough of those moments herself, she said. When she returned home from Afghanistan in 2011 and went to college, she said she couldn't relate to her peers because of their different life experiences.
"I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere," she said. "I’ve been in those dark spaces where you don’t feel like anybody understands you and you don’t fit in anywhere."
Christopher and Bruggom coordinated with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Iowa to have a representative at the photoshoot with pamphlets for any veterans who were interested. State Service Officer Ben Dales, an army veteran himself, said he was glad to provide information on mental health and other services for veterans who may not otherwise seek it out.
"There’s a lot of stigma behind (mental health) and the veteran background, so we're trying to get out there and we're trying to say, 'Hey, there is help, there is support'," Dales said.
Bruggom said at the end of the auction, he hopes to provide several veterans organizations, yet to be determined, with a large check. At the very least, though, he said he wants the photo to start a conversation around veterans' mental health.
"I just want to help take care of these people that took care of our freedoms."