The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A veteran photo project that shows what can’t always be spoken

One of the images from the Veteran Art Project, which relies on trick photography and seeks to capture the experience of service members who have returned home. (Picture 62/Courtesy Devin Mitchell)

Wars end, soldiers return. Uniforms are folded and pictures placed on the mantle. And though new lives begin, veterans carry their service with them long after they return home.

For many, reintegration is coming to terms with those two halves: the veteran and the civilian made anew.

That bifurcated existence is the basis for the Veteran Art Project, a captivating visual experiment by a 27-year-old photographer who is exploring a part of the veteran’s experience that is sometimes difficult to articulate.

The idea is simple enough: Devin Mitchell, a junior at Arizona State University, finds a room, a mirror and a subject, and then takes two pictures. One is a picture of the subject in uniform, the other in civilian attire. Afterward, Mitchell uses Photoshop to combine the two.

The first of the project’s 63 numbered photos, which was taken this past August, shows a man staring into his bathroom mirror and adjusting his suit. Staring back is the same man, Lt. Ricky Ryba, in blue Navy fatigues. The resulting image transcends time and place.

“I’m not a veteran,” Mitchell, who currently lives in Los Angeles and completes his studies remotely, said in a recent interview. “I specialize in trick photography…and it wasn’t until I started building my photo essay for my grad school application that I figured I would look at a sociological issue … which is the double life that a lot of [veterans] live.”

The photos are published on Instagram for ease of access. Mitchell calls his work “artistic journalism,” and notes that the only prerequisites for his subjects are that they are veterans and that they can still fit into their uniforms.

“I don’t interview them, all I ask is if they’re veteran and if I can come and take their picture,” Mitchell said. “This is an opportunity for people to speak without having to say something.”

“It seems almost therapeutic for them… I feel like they’re showing other veterans they’re not alone, that there’s other people like them,” he added.

Initially, Mitchell had a difficult time finding people interested in being photographed, but after picture 13, he says, his inbox was flooded.

That picture shows Marine Cpl. Brad Ivanchan, a machine gunner with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, who lost both his legs in June 2013 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan.

His back is to the camera, his carbon-fiber prosthetics visible under hiked khakis, while in his reflection, he is wearing Marine dress “Charlies.” Ivanchan’s tattooed arms extend downward, hands affixed to the counter. But it is his face that resonates — that seems to be staring at the wounded Ivanchan saying, “Get up.”

“People connected with that picture because it showed something physical, visceral,” Mitchell said. “After that I didn’t have a problem finding veterans who wanted to be a part of the project.”

Marine Cpl. Daphne Bye was among the veterans who saw Mitchell’s photos and who contacted him about photographing her and her husband, Marine Staff Sgt. David Bye.

The two had met before Daphne joined the Marines, when David was stationed in Hawaii and Daphne was attending college there.

Daphne, who says she was the victim of sexual harassment by one of her senior non-commissioned officers, and Bye, who served as an infantryman in the battles of Fallujah in 2004 and 2007, were both diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder around the same time in 2011. The couple shared the burdens of post-traumatic stress and their treatment together, but a few years after their daughter Sophie was born, they both realized that it was no longer healthy for them to stay married. In August they divorced.

“When I saw Devin doing the project I was really excited. I figured why not,” Daphne Bye said. “When you’re in the military a lot of marriages break…and a lot of people don’t understand what the reason for it is and I thought it was important for me to say something.”

She explained her reasons to her ex-husband, who agreed to do the picture even though the couple had started living apart.

“I think it’s important for everybody to understand that even though we looked happy on the outside and that we truly did try for us and our daughter there’s only so much you can do when the issues are within yourself.”

Mitchell has no plans to end the project anytime soon. He said the more pictures he takes, the more issues, like PTSD, he hopes to explore through his photography.

“I don’t mind if it takes me 10 years,” Mitchell said. “As time changes, so might the photos and what they are reflecting. We can only wait and see.”