Viral photography connects veteran rehabilitation with ASU community

A veteran stands in front of a mirror, face crinkled in agony as she presses a gun to her head. Behind her is a photographer, standing two feet away with a camera in hand.

Online sociology junior Devin Mitchell found himself in that bathroom for his viral social media project, the Veteran Vision Project, which explores before and after shots of veterans looking in mirrors to show what it’s like to re-enter society after service.

“He’s not a fine artist, he’s not a photographer — He’s a sociology student," said Nancy Dallett, assistant director of the ASU Tillman Veteran's Center. "He uses this photography as a tool to get at these larger questions about society at the moment."

Mitchell, who is based out of Los Angeles, photographs the veterans in their uniforms, portraying their time in the military through a bathroom mirror. Then, he has the subjects do something that reflects their time outside the military.

For some, it’s holding their families; for others, it’s holding a gun to their head as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression taking over their lives. He only has two rules: the presence of a uniform and a reflective surface. 

“They’re like fingerprints," Mitchell said. "No two are the same."

The project started as a research paper. Mitchell said it wasn’t even a piece of the paper.

However, the movement took off when he posted one of his pictures on Sept. 1, 2014. He woke up the next morning to find the photo had over 2,000 likes, 500 shares and its own Reddit forum. His email was filled with people asking for comments on the photos. 

“I knew in that moment I found something that was willing to open itself up to me,” Mitchell said.

So he began the project with the goal of photographing 10,000 veterans, but found that he tapped into something far more personal than a sociological photography project.

“I didn’t see this in the beginning, but it’s actually very therapeutic," he said. "It’s therapeutic for them to participate in an artistic process where they can display who they are after war."

He explained that he never dictated the message of the project. While veterans contacted him and decided what they wanted to open up to the public, he simply photographed.

“Because he’s a young man and he’s not had military experience, it’s kind of unusual to have that kind of civilian-military collaboration,” Dallet said. “Devin just has a way of enabling these people who have served to just open up.”

Through this online medium, Mitchell saw a community forming through veterans' comments on the photos. Seeing ties being made in a therapeutic way, Mitchell began to reach out of his own community.

He’d been contacted by a long list of universities, but said he chose to collaborate with ASU because, despite the fact that he lived in Los Angeles, he felt a connection with the veteran community at the university.

In a way, it was a means for him to reach out to this community just like many of the subjects of his photos.

That was when he began working with Dallett to touch the lives of ASU students and transform the online project into a gallery. His photographs will be featured in ASU’s Veteran ‘Salute to Service’ events Oct. 27 through Nov. 14.

“We all go through life transitions and I think the overarching theme of this project is that reintegration happens in so many different life situations,” Mitchell said. “I would only hope that when the student body looks at this work, they’re seeing that too.”

Related Links:

ASU veterans seek to build memorial to commemorate fallen Sun Devils

PTSD plagues life at home

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