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Monday, 7 November 2016

Only the Sky Remains Untouched

 all pictures copyright Claire Felicie

It was a real pleasure to revisit Carolyn Drake's Wild Pigeon last week. It's such a beautiful book with such a powerful message. The images are fantastic and the way they were made (they were collaged by the people who feature in the book) adds to the whole package. I've had a fair few people tell me the photobook is over and it is. The generic photobook that is, the boring photobook, the bad photobook. But the brilliant photobook isn't. It's alive and kicking. There just aren't that many of them.

Wild Pigeon is designed by Syben Kuiper and, he shows that great design does make a difference, I can think of a few badly designed books that would have been turned into something quite different with a bit of intelligent design. But there you go. He costs money. And not all of us have it.

On Friday I also wrote about the students I used to teach in my old job 16-19 kids learning English for Speakers of Other Languages. About half of the kids came from difficult backgrounds, or had had/were having difficult experiences, horrific experiences even.

There used to be some support for them, not much but more than there is now. For those who were refugees or asylum seekers it was pitifully little. Even when you saw organisations saying they support people with psychological, housing, financial, gender-based problems it didn't mean that they did. And if they did, then the funding they had was insufficient and barely scratched the surface.

One of the biggest problems some of our students had was PTSD. They didn't know they had it, but they did. I remember conversations with students who would talk about their experiences back in the country they had come from. Sometimes it was a weird form of nostalgia which marked an ending of sorts. I remember kids talking about watching the firefights in their hometown, and the excitement when the rockets started going off, or describing the strange rush of being on a bus running along a canyonside roadway with bandits shooting at them. Another student had an RPG explode in the room where he was sitting. It killed his brother. And yet another, who spoke with bitterness, described being deserted by relatives and left to take his four brothers and sisters across a border to a refugee camp. It took him four days and he has never forgiven those who left him in this situation.

We had kids who'd been kept in containers, or locked in back-rooms, or witnessed mass killings, who had woken up in mass graves, or woken up next to bodies on a lorry going overland. That's just the stuff they'd talk about. There were other things they didn't talk about, or would only hint at.

They had nightmares about it. They had anxiety. They got depressed. They got terrified. They woke up in the middle of the night with the night terrors. They had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And they were kids. And there was no help for them. There was said to be help for them, but there wasn't. Indeed, the problem was barely recognised.

It's a little more recognised for adults, especially those with a military background. But still there's precious little help even for them. Even in a wealthy country such as the Netherlands where the number of traumatised soldiers is relatively low.

But they do exist and they are the subject of Claire Felicie's Only the Sky Remains Untouched, a book designed by Syben Kuiper that arrived in the post on Friday. Normally it would sit on a pile for a month, but this blog is organic and impestuous and its content is determined by circumstance and it is a quite beautiful book.

First of all, it's a tall book. It's a black and white book with the title embossed on the front page, To read it against the black and white picture of a brick wall is near impossible. You have to turn the page and read the mirror image.

Open the book and there are full-bleed edgelandy landscapes of ditches, of forests, of a dilapidated factory. It's very dark. We go inside and see the verso torso of a man in combat fatigues, the head divided and coming up on the recto side at the back of the book.

Flick the page and the same thing happens, except now on the left there's a scrawled, scarred wall and on the right the torso of a man. The man is a former soldier and he's got a name, Marnix. From the back of the book we learn he was in Afghanistan in 2009, a place where he witnessed a rocket going off in front of him with devastating consequence. He's had PTSD ever since.

There's Oscar who was recruited by Mossad but left when he refused to shoot a prisoner with a sack over his head, there's Dominique who lived off Pringles for three weeks and lost 40 pounds when  he got trapped in his radio post in Afghanistan, and there's Armand who was one of the first on the scene after a land mine had blown the occupants of an army truck to smithereens.

There are more portraits made in astonishingly trusting circumstances and the walls get more scarred and battle-worn as well they might. All the pictures in the book were shot in a former 'military terrain and weapons factory' in the Netherlands, a fitting place for the portraits to be made. The weapons factory sits in the 'military terrain' of a 'shock forest', a place were explosives were once tested. So the symbolism in the split images is matched by the historicity of the place.

Only the Sky Remains Untouched is a moving book made for moving reasons. Cecilie describes how people with PTSD 'are emotionally wounded and carry those wounds with them for the rest of their lives. Not only the people portrayed in this book suffer from the consequences of PTSD, which includes reliving the horrors of war, nightmares, sudden outbursts of anger and intense shock reactions. Their failies and everyone around them suffer too.

Felicie made it 'with the aim of breaking the taboo that surrounds PTSD.' Here she focuses on PTSD for veterans. There's a huge taboo. PTSD is not a clean flesh wound. It's messy and dirty and talks about the atrocities of war. But I think the idea of there being a taboo applies even more to civilians. Because to recognise the mental wounds of war is to recognise the horrific experiences people have gone through, It's to recognise the depth of the problem, and the need for those wounds to be healed. That is a huge job and it is one that needs to be addressed. And of course it's not.

Buy Only the Sky Remains Untouched here. 

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