Seeing Hope with Photographs and Words - VA Palo Alto Health Care System
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VA Palo Alto Health Care System


Seeing Hope with Photographs and Words

Army Veteran Amanda Smith and Marine Corps Veteran Tom Hurst review some of the images Amanda has captured on her cell phone.

Army Veteran Amanda Smith and Marine Corps Veteran Tom Hurst review some of the images Amanda has captured on her cell phone.

By Susan Quaglietti, Registered Nurse Practitioner and founder of the Veteran Photo Recovery Project
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A 28-year-old Iraq/Afghanistan Veteran recently decided to join the First Step Residential Program at the Palo Alto VA’s Menlo Park Division to address his substance abuse problems and depressive symptoms.

As he entered the program, he reflected about his concern to address his overwhelming mental health challenges and how his deep psychological issues trailed him like destructive demons.

During his admission interview into the addiction treatment program, the Veteran was informed about a new therapeutic photography workshop being offered. His face lit up when photography was mentioned.

“I just love taking pictures,” he said. “I am a click-aholic.”

I Feel Like a Normal Person

After the first class, the Veteran said, “This is the first time I feel like a normal person when walking around. I can’t wait to go outside and take pictures. In the past, when I walked with others, they would question why I was always looking around. They seemed to just ignore the surroundings while I look left, right, up, and down.”

This Veteran’s reaction about taking photographs reflects why Dr. Tim Ramsey, director of the First Step Residential Program and a clinical psychologist, feels the Veteran Photo Recovery Project: The Hope Book Series has been beneficial to those dealing with recovery. Dr. Ramsey agreed that “viewing one’s surroundings with more attention is similar to mindfulness, a practice that makes a person be more aware of the present moment.”

It’s All About Hope

Hope is a catalyst that can help drive a successful recovery. Having hope requires being open to changes, staying in the present while planning for the future, and being optimistic despite uncertainty. This flexibility can be difficult to achieve if coping with mental health challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, or homelessness.

Having Veterans explore their idea of hope in recovery is empowering, and developing a narrative about this abstract concept can be a valuable treatment intervention.

In the Veteran Photo Recovery Project: Hope Book Series, Veterans create a photo narrative about hope by using 10 photographic images and 10 associated words in a sentence that together explain their idea about hope. Veterans attend four consecutive classes over a month and engage in group discussions prompted by lecture presentations.

Dr. Amanda Murray, a clinical psychologist with the First Step Residential Program at Menlo Park, has witnessed seeing the photo hope narrative created by residents who are dealing with addiction.

“The Hope Book Series project allows Veterans to search for symbols of hope and recovery in everyday scenes and objects,” she said. “In therapy, we encourage people to challenge their existing beliefs about the world and practice looking at life from a new perspective. By encouraging Veterans to look for meaning and inspiration in their everyday surroundings, the Hope Book Series project provides a wonderful chance for Veterans to challenge existing beliefs about the world and themselves.”


Amanda Smith is a 38-year-old Army Veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon entering the Homeless Veterans Residential Program to continue addressing her mental health issues, she enthusiastically joined the photo workshop. For her photo book, she paired photographic images with words such as belief, happiness, acceptance, resilient, and possibilities. She was able to illustrate the growth of her hope as she moved on with her recovery journey.

While she was working on her photo book project, she felt that “looking for images of hope shifted my mind, even if only for a minute from the trauma, the self-judgment, the blame and shame to recognizing hope all around me.” Amanda felt that hope allowed her to begin the transformation that was required to change her life course to a positive direction.

“Hope means that even when I hit a bump in my progress, I know I just need to ride the wave as it will pass,” she said. “Hope is the strength to continue, to keep fighting to come home, and be present instead of living in my past.”

Veterans from multiple war time periods with a variety of recovery issues have enrolled in the Veteran Photo Recovery Project: Hope Book Series. The hope books they create all have unique identifying words that define the Veteran’s idea of hope.

Dr. Amanda Murray remembers a Veteran she was working with in individual therapy who was attempting to move away from a past violent life. “For his cover photo, he selected an image of the “No Weapons” sign from the First Step entrance,” she said. “It’s a sign we all pass every day and usually don’t pay much attention to. For him, it took on huge significance as he worked on letting go of symbols of his past behavior and finding joy in a new life characterized by love and compassion. For him, this image came to represent the word HAPPINESS as well as hope.”

Kathy Kelley, a recreational therapist with the First Step Residential Treatment Program, commented that creative expression routinely comes up during her assessment. “This photography class is challenging Veterans to get out of their heads and practice looking at the world through their heart instead of suppressing painful emotional feelings after being in the service,” she said. “After four weeks they have reported feeling a sense of pride, accomplishment, freedom, and excitement for learning a new skill which they can take with them into their future.”


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