After a decade in the Army, which spanned two tours of Iraq, Jessie Kwasney came to Missoula to study fine arts at the University of Montana.
The 31-year-old ceramicist, photographer and CrossFit trainer quickly found out he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you’re trained to go fight people, I think PTSD is just a common side effect of that,” Kwasney said. “I can’t sleep, I get really terrible night terrors.”
Those lines were spoken by Kwasney in an audio recording that accompanies his portrait — one of 11 photos of PTSD survivors hung up in the UC Gallery.
Kwasney took all the photos and recorded interviews with subjects, who were crowd-sourced through social media and through friends.
That makes up the exhibit “The Details of Heroes,” which Kwasney hopes opens people’s eyes to the disorder, which isn’t exclusive to combat veterans.
Some 8 percent of Americans have PTSD, according to advocacy group PTSD United, and women are twice as likely to have PTSD as men.
During his research, Kwasney found people had PTSD from a variety of traumatic experiences, including rape, bullying or childhood attacks, or growing up in a warzone.
He recorded each portrait subject answering four questions: what event or trauma caused their PTSD, what symptoms appear in everyday life, how they manage the PTSD and what they want people to know about the disorder.
“A lot of people came forward,” Kwasney said. “Everybody was willing to talk, but some people, this was the first time they’d talked about it.
“It had made them feel a bit better about everything, to say it out loud.”
People could say as much or as little as they wanted — interview lengths ranged from 90 seconds to nearly 30 minutes. Kwasney left the audio unedited, except to remove his own voice.
Robert Welch, an older, goateed man with kind eyes, started his story with a laugh, about being born during a flood in the ocean town of Newport, Oregon. Then he started into his story, about he and his sister being stabbed near their home in Eugene in 1973.
“Ok, you’re just going to hear it, because I don’t think I’ve said it to anyone else,” Welch started.
The story — of he and his sister’s walk to the Willamette River to catch crawdads that ended with both of them stabbed and laying in the yard of a neighbor’s house — is somewhat rambling. Welch laughs at the dark details, like the way he and his sister were covered with white sheets while waiting for the ambulance, to prevent a journalist from taking photos. (When his mother arrived, she thought they’d died. “Great idea,” he said sarcastically). The story also alludes to tertiary trauma, like a misguided judge who praised Welch and his sister Rose for being “strong kids” and telling them they’d be fine.
From second grade on, Welch never felt right, and tried to commit suicide at 19 years old, after a childhood thinking “the world rejects us.”
Welch learned being around others made him anxious, so he mostly spends time alone, or with his wife or sons only.
“I didn’t deal with people,” he said. “I thought having a kid would change me, boy was that a mistake. I have good boys, but I passed on some of my problems.”
The interviews are available to listen by scanning a QR code underneath the photo, and headphones are provided.
The effect from looking at the simple, black-and-white portrait while listening to the person tell their story, is moving, as if you’re in the room with them while they talk to you.
Kwasney took the portraits with a Sony A6000 camera with a 50mm lens in natural light, for higher contrast. The subject’s face fills the entire frame, from chin to the top of the head, forcing the viewer to take in their eyes, the wrinkles around their mouth, the crook in their nose, while listening to their story.
Like Jill, who was attacked when she worked as a juvenile detention officer, or Kari, who was raped and now doesn’t feel as though she can trust anyone outside of her family — although even they don’t know the details of her trauma.
“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.”
And to start that conversation, one needs to listen — to people like Kari.
“The inside of my head is so loud,” she said. “I listen to music a lot ‘cause I have to have something that is louder than my brain.”