Hope Is What Empowers The Veteran Photo Recovery Project – An Inside Look Into the Making of VISIONS OF WARRIORS by Filmmaker Ming Lai

Ming Lai, Producer/Writer/Editor/Director of VISIONS OF WARRIORS

A good friend of mine always bets on the long shots in life. He may not win, but he tries anyway. And his life becomes richer because of it. After learning about Susan Quaglietti, an inspiring nurse practitioner who’s been using innovative photography therapy to treat veterans who are suffering from mental illness, I decided to follow his lead, taking a chance and approaching her about making a documentary together.

I was drawn to Susan’s important work because I’m passionate about photography and have been developing a narrative feature film about a war photographer who’s battling against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was struck by the fact that her powerful story was the exact opposite of mine. That is, instead of photography causing mental illness, it could be used to heal it.

Susan Quaglietti, Nurse Practitioner and Founder, Veteran Photo Recovery Project

Not being able to find Susan’s contact information online, I simply wrote a letter to her and sent it to the VA Menlo Park, where her groundbreaking Veteran Photo Recovery Project is located. Based on the news reports of veterans waiting interminably for benefits and care, I didn’t expect a reply from her inside this vast, bureaucratic VA system.

However, about a month later, Susan responded and said she was in. Suddenly, the doors to this imposing governmental organization opened and I was granted access. She and her team—art therapist Jeff Stadler, clinical social worker Ryan Gardner, and clinical psychologist Kristen McDonald—became my helpful guides through this complex system. Even more so, they became my knowledgeable teachers in learning about mental illness.

An even greater barrier to access lay ahead—the veterans themselves. The first time my crew and I met some of the veterans in the program, they were participating in an art therapy class. All of them were women, and they all have military sexual trauma (MST). It was a bit intimidating meeting them. I felt like they were sizing us up, questioning if they could trust us. Later, I learned that people with MST have huge issues with trust because they were assaulted by fellow service members and, even worse, their commanding officers didn’t protect them.


“I was drawn to Susan [Quaglietti’s] important work because I’m passionate about photography and have been developing a narrative feature film about a war photographer who’s battling against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was struck by the fact that her powerful story was the exact opposite of mine. That is, instead of photography causing mental illness, it could be used to heal it.”


 

However, as we interviewed each of the veterans, I felt less intimidated and more confident, emboldened by their willingness to share their powerful life stories. They talked about difficult subjects—war, violence, assault, rape, suffering, death, anger, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, despair, suicide. They did so because they wanted to help others. It’s a selfless, noble act. In other words, I didn’t doggedly pursue access. It was generously given to me by the veterans. 

Even after I was able to gain access to the VA and then the veterans, I was afraid that our documentary was going to be shut down. Halfway through our production, a huge scandal erupted in the VA system, from a massive backlog to wait time cover-ups to even patient deaths. Luckily, the VA Menlo Park and related VA Palo Alto weren’t involved and we were able to continue our work. Eventually, the VA Secretary resigned, and many reforms were instituted.

With access came insight. Through Susan and her team as well as all of the veterans, I was able to learn a lot about moral injury, PTSD, MST, and other mental illnesses. I had already done extensive research on PTSD while developing my narrative feature film about a war photographer. But diving deeper into this vast subject of mental illness gave me even greater understanding.

Mark Pinto, Veteran

While we interviewed many veterans, I ultimately chose four of them to feature in our documentary—Mark Pinto, Homerina “Marina” Bond, Ari Sonnenberg, and Priscilla “Peni” Bethel. Through these and other dynamic veterans whom we introduce in the film, I was able to learn about mental illness first-hand. Susan and her team provided more of a clinical explanation of it, grounding my research.

Ari, who was in the U.S. Army and served three tours of Iraq as well as tours of Bosnia and Kosovo, suffers from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He experiences anger, depression, and despair in addition to headaches, memory loss, and blindness. He separated from his wife and became estranged from his young son. He’s even attempted suicide multiple times.

Mark, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot who served in the Gulf War, introduced me to the relatively new concept of “moral injury,” in which one’s core values are compromised, leading to PTSD-like symptoms. He became the moral center of our film because of his profound thoughts on the human cost of war. 

Homerina “Marina” Bond, Veteran

Marina is a U.S. Marine and served in the Gulf War. Peni was in the U.S. Army, serving in the historic Women’s Army Corps during the Vietnam War era. Like most of the women in the program, Marina and Peni both have MST. This form of mental illness has become so common that this separate descriptor was created. Like moral injury, MST manifests itself in symptoms that are similar to PTSD.

Veteran Donnelle Evans explains that PTSD is caused by not one traumatic event but rather a culmination of them. She battles against MST, having faced sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. But she also reveals that her daughter committed suicide when she was thirteen. We learned that many of the veterans had led tough lives prior to their military service and onset of mental illness.

Clinical social worker Ryan Gardner states that if a veteran has one type of mental illness, he or she is more likely to have another. Indeed, many of the veterans in the program were diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses. Oftentimes, substance abuse, whether it was alcohol or drugs, was one of them.

Ari Sonnenberg, Veteran

Many times, despair would lead to suicide attempts. Mark points out that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. He goes on to say that around half them are over the age of 50, meaning that this shocking statistic is populated by both younger war veterans (Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Gulf War) and surprisingly older ones (Korean War, Vietnam War).

The greatest insight that I was able to glean is the power of hope. After working on this documentary project for more than three-and-a-half years and constantly watching this heart-wrenching footage, I learned that despite their difficult lives, the veterans cling to hope. Through their tenacity, they’re able to find treatment and start healing. While their journeys to recovery are far from easy, they’re driven by this strong belief.

Hope is also what empowers the Veteran Photo Recovery Project. Susan, who’s been caring for veterans for more than 25 years, combined her nursing practice and artistic passion and founded this innovative program. After taking a photography class, she realized that her veteran patients could do the same, using it as a form of art therapy to supplement their traditional therapies (individual counseling, group counseling, and medication).

Susan also taps into the current zeitgeist of smart phone photography and social media sharing. She notes that unlike other visual arts like drawing, painting, and sculpting which require some artistic skill, almost anyone can take out their smart phone and snap a photo. It’s therefore one of the most accessible art therapies.

In the film, the veterans explain how photography therapy allowed them to block out the past, focus on the present, enjoy the moment, appreciate beauty, celebrate life, express themselves, share their vision, reconnect with society, and inspire others. In other words, they’re able to articulate hope.


In the film, the veterans explain how photography therapy allowed them to block out the past, focus on the present, enjoy the moment, appreciate beauty, celebrate life, express themselves, share their vision, reconnect with society, and inspire others. In other words, they’re able to articulate hope.


 

This is an incredible accomplishment because veterans who are suffering from mental illness often have difficulty going out into the world, communicating with others, and expressing their feelings. They have to reach a certain point in their recovery to be able to do so. And then they have to be willing to share their life stories and finally do it on camera. It marks a gigantic step in their recovery journeys.

Peni makes one of the most profound statements in the film. While she appreciates all of the different types of therapy that she’s received, she’s learned the most about herself through her art therapy. It’s a powerful testament to photography therapy and the other types of art therapy that she does. It also speaks to the need for alternative therapy in general, especially when traditional therapies work only about 50% of the time. But we wouldn’t know this unless she and the rest of the veterans generously shared their powerful life stories and these important insights.

It’s a been an honor to document the extraordinary lives of these veterans and their mental health providers. Our film wouldn’t be possible without our grantors, sponsors, donors, and supporters. I’m also indebted to my talented and hardworking crew for their great work—Matt Steinauer (Producer/Editor), Dilip Isaac (Director of Photography), Trevor Crist (Director of Photography), Sven Faulconer (Composer), Jeff Hutchins (Sound Supervisor/Sound Designer/Foley Artist), Bruce Greenspan (Dialogue Editor/Music Editor/Sound Effects Editor/Re-Recording Mixer), Stacy Hruby (Location Sound Mixer), Micah Mucklow (Location Sound Mixer), and many more.

Priscilla “Peni” Bethel, Veteran

“Visions of Warriors” received a generous grant from the Stanford Medicine & the Muse Program in Medical Humanities, premiered at the prestigious Vail Film Festival, and received an honorable mention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) 2017 Voice Awards. 

Currently, “Visions of Warriors” has been screening at universities, conferences, film festivals, libraries, and special events across the U.S.

 

CONNECT WITH VISIONS OF WARRIORS DOCUMENTARY:

“Visions of Warriors” is now available on Amazon Video Direct, Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Vimeo on Demand as well as visionsofwarriors.com/store.

To watch the trailer: visionsofwarriors.com/trailer.

To learn more: visionsofwarriors.com.

To learn more about Humanist Films: humanistfilms.com.

 

 

Ming Lai, Producer/Writer/Editor/Director 
Ming Lai is a filmmaker and photographer and Founder/CEO of Humanist Films, a film and photography production company based in Los Angeles. His narrative and documentary films explore the human condition, addressing subjects like war, illegal immigration, art education, and mental illness. His photography similarly tries to capture the human spirit, from breathtaking architecture to haunting internment camps. In his commercial work, he’s created commercials and corporate videos for many international clients, including Coldwell Banker, Epson, Fujitsu, Marukome, and Yakult. With all of his projects, he strives to create enduring works of art that benefit humanity.

 


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