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Only the Sky Remains Untouched – Suffering from PTSD

Claire Felicie’s ‘Only the Sky Remains Untouched’ won the 2017 International Photobook Award of Photo Independent!

My series is about military men and women who suffer from PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, due to their participation in UN peacekeeping missions to countries such as Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Cambodia. I came upon the idea to portray them, because of my previous series: Here are the young men (2009-2010). This series show the faces of young Dutch marines before, during and after their deployment to Uruzgan, Afghanistan. When this series was published I got a mass of reactions from veterans who recognised something of their own experiences in the faces. They were suffering from PTSD themselves, as they wrote me.

I went out for books, films and articles on PTSD, and decided to make a new series to put the topic on de calendar. The second reason to start with the series was my own (late) father in law who was a soldier in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL). He suffered from nightmares, sudden outbursts and moments of anger, which scared his own children and grandchildren. The third and very important reason was to get rid of the taboo that is surrounding PTSD.

I met the man and the woman of my series during a motor-pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. I joined them because I was making a photo reportage of their tour. I asked them to pose, and luckily they agreed. They said yes because they trusted me and my intentions ( we became very close during the trip), but also because they were familiar with my former series Here are the young men, which they appreciated much.

Then I went searching for a decent location to shoot. I was looking for a place that could stand symbolic for their sufferings and came upon this former weapons factory in Zaandam, a place near to Amsterdam. This turned out to be the perfect location because of the dilapidated buildings and surrounding nature. I had had this ‘vision’ of the veterans lying on a field bed. So I asked my ‘models’ if they could get me one. And Pol (also in the book) came with this beautiful old field bed back from the early eighties.

I had already decided not to shoot with an ordinary camera, stand alone with a digital one. I wanted the shooting atmosphere as calm, as dedicated and as ritual-like as possible. So I went out for a large format analog Technical Camera. I had already done a 3 months course at the Photo Academy in Amsterdam, to be able to work with this specific camera. I and my assistant Julia Gunther set up the set, and we kept a blanket at hand, to warm our veterans during the shoot because the buildings were stone-cold. I could only take three portraits per person, because of the large-scale negatives and the slow process of the Cambo Master-camera.

‘Loss’ is the central theme in my work. Loss of innocence, loss of support, loss of loved ones, loss of illusions and dreams. Very early in my life, I lost those close to me; when I’m only four years of age, my mother dies of cancer. I’m confronted with death hitting suddenly and people leaving abruptly without saying goodbye. These events are a major influence on my work. How do we deal with grief, misfortune, failure and disillusionment and how do we cope with these life-changing events?

It wasn’t a clear decision to become an artist. I just couldn’t stop making photographs. I love to work in the dark room, and even with my 5 children growing up, I could be found in the dark room regularly. Darkroom is a big word for the kitchen or bathroom that I used at the time.

I think that the 24 photo albums my father made in the years that he was married to my mother and which were full of beautiful black and white pictures of daily life, has turned out to be my greatest influence. While looking through these albums over and over again, I got the feeling to get close to her as possible. I felt an enormous grief, and the albums helped me with coping.

My life is filled with photography and by diving into my subjects by reading books, seeing films and reading articles. Also with reading and answering emails, with going to appointments with curators, journalists, colleagues and friends who are also working in the field, with visiting interesting and inspiring exhibitions, and last but not least, with making new work, and developing the photos in my (now permanent) dark room.

The most difficult part of the whole process is when I’ve finished a project and have to show the work to the outside world. It’s only then that I got insecure. Before that, I nearly think about reactions etcetera, I just begin because I’m overwhelmed by this feeling of urgency. I have to do it, even if no one would appreciate it. When I’m finished, the fear hits suddenly: what if nobody cares?? Fortunately, I have not experienced such an outcome yet.

When I was 12 years of age much inspiration came to me in the form of French Nouvelle Vague films that I admired because of the stark combination of darkness and light in its photography, the books by Ed van der Elsken, a famous Dutch photographer, the already mentioned photo albums by my late father, the book with highlights from Life Magazine, the Disaster of war drawings by Goya. Later on, I fell in love with the work by Robert Capa, Anton Corbijn, Sally Mann, Jan Banning’s ‘Traces of war’ portraits and Martin Roemers’ ‘Eyes of war’ and of course ’Sleeping soldiers’ by Tim Hetherington.

When I look at the work of others, I’m either immediately drawn, or disinterested. When I’m drawn, I read about the background of the work, and then my love can grow because of the story behind it. I love it when work is highly personal, and either spontaneous or carefully planned out. But what I always need in order to appreciate work, is to feel the commitment of the photographer behind the picture, his love for his subject.


Claire Felicie

Claire Felicie (born in 1966) is a Dutch visual artist currently based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She’s a self-taught photographer. She recently won the 2017 International Photobook Award of Photo Independent for her book 'Only the Sky Remains Untouched'

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