Devin Mitchell was trying to get into graduate school as a sociology major, and he needed what he called a “high impact device” to get the attention of the admissions board. Since he was also a freelance photographer, he naturally thought of creating a photo essay as the medium for that sort of impact.
And with that the Veteran Vision Project was born.
The idea is at once simple and complex. Miller takes a picture of a veteran wearing a uniform of his or her choosing while looking into a mirror. The reflection in the mirror is the same vet dressed in civilian clothes that capture what his or her life is like out of the military.
“The use of a mirror seemed an appropriate device for this subject matter,” Mitchell said. “It screams dichotomy, two different people in one body, and sometimes it screams embodiment and identification.”
Mitchell’s process is simple. “I don’t know any of these people,” he said. “My encounter with any one of the subjects are usually no more than 15 minutes total. They reach out to me online. I vet their military status to make sure I’m not meeting with anyone who’s counterfeit. And I show up at their house. I don’t usually ask questions.”
The subjects decide on the composition of the essay. “Every single time so far they have had something ready,” Mitchell said. “I make the photo and I give it to them and I sit back as an audience member and wonder what the photo meant.
“I call it ‘artistic journalism,'” he said. “These are landmark observations of who these people are in this time period.”
The images provide an amazing range of emotions, especially considering they’re all shot in basically the same setting – a bathroom mirror. In one essay a Marine couple is hugging in the mirror while they stand separate in the foreground, the man still in uniform and the woman in civilian clothes holding a sign that says “PTSD – divorcing but united.” In another a soldier is peeling off the blouse to his camouflage while he’s shirtless in the reflection with “Pride” scrawled across his chest in red lipstick.
“If the photos make people squirm in their chair a little bit, then obviously that’s something they needed to be exposed to,” Mitchell said. “As an artist I couldn’t dream of anything better. Enlightenment through art is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Mitchell is firm in the desire not to artificially engineer a reality with the Veterans Vision Project.
“This is not a project to propagandize any sense of nationalism whatsoever,” he said. “I’m very early in the project, and I will document the good, bad, and ugly. People should really expect to see everything the veterans have to say. As an artist I’m not scared of walking on anyone’s eggshells.”
Marine veteran Mike Dowling is one of Mitchell’s subjects.
“I knew some friends who had done it and they vouched for him,” Dowling said. “I liked the pictures he’d done, so when he reached out for me I was up for it. He said, ‘I just need you to have a military uniform that fits you and whatever civilian clothes you want. You pose how you want to pose.’ I had full creative control.”
And how did the result impact Dowling? “I look at my photo I realize how significantly my military service has laid the foundation for who I am today,” he said. “No matter what I wear the military is always going to be part of who I am.”
Mitchell is not a veteran, and he describes his military knowledge as “very distant, far-off media consumption.” “But I’m a student,” he added. “I like to learn.”
After 134 photo essays (and an ultimate goal of 10,000 for the project) Mitchell has learned a lot about the military community.
“There’s just as much fragmentation as there is unity among the military,” Mitchell said. “Just like any community. The military is no different. That’s one myth that I’ve demystified for myself since I started this. Everyone does not identify with everyone else in the military community. They’re still people.”