In 2010, photographer Mark Neville went to Afghanistan as an Imperial War Museum appointed war artist and the experience changed his life. After spending three months with 16 Air Assault brigade in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Neville returned home suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Neville had gone to Helmand with an expectation that he could make engaged social documentary work by getting close to his subjects, in particular the Afghanis, but he quickly discovered that such an intimate collaboration was not going to be possible. Instead Neville spent his time, not unproductively, but cold, frightened and frustrated. He wished he hadn’t gone, “it was life changing and not necessarily in a good way” he said on his return, “I was naïve in what would happen and so were those who sent me”.
As an artist who uses his work to raise awareness of social issues, he was disappointed to realise his ambition to change things for the better was unachievable and that his work would not have any real impact on the government’s policy in Afghanistan. “I had in mind the impact Martha Rosler’s anti-Vietnam work had on the American public. I was also aware that on a personal level I’d need this validation of my efforts, to justify the risk and strain.”
In his book Battle against Stigma, Neville places his own personal struggle with PTSD, alongside the experiences of the soldiers he met while in Helmand and how they dealt with living with PTSD at a time it was not well recognized by the military authorities or society more widely.
The series is also on view in an exhibition in Derby, England, on the occasion of the Format festival. It features photographs from his book of soldiers based in Helmand; images from his series Growing up in Helmand (a collection of portraits of Afghan children Neville encountered while out on patrol, mirrored by the disquieting young age of the soldiers themselves) and his film entitled Paratroopers, a candid look at downtime on the army base in Helmand.
Mark Neville, Battle against stigma
30th March – 24th June 2018
FORMAT International Photography Festival
QUAD, Market Place, Cathedral Quarter