The worlds of editorial and advertising sometimes share an uneasy space—journalists provide the public with unbiased information so they they can make their own informed decisions, while advertising agencies try to influence decisions. Yet when it comes to getting people to stop and think about making a change to a real issue, who better to do so than the experts in cutting through the constant noise surrounding us every day? And, when attempting to bring home the story of real people and real situations, who better to collaborate with than an award-winning documentary photographer?
In October 2014, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), an advertising firm with a roster of big-name clients, decided they wanted to make a difference around a stark statistic: According to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report, 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide every day. While the Washington Post questions the statistical accuracy of this number, the impact on the lives of veterans, their families, and their communities is no less real.
The agency partnered with Elder Heart, a nonprofit veterans organization, to create a multimedia campaign called Mission 22, with the aim of starting a national conversation around the troubling issue of veteran suicide, raising awareness, and connecting people to the resources and support they need to recover from the less outwardly visible wounds of war.
The first step was engaging the public through social media by creating the #Mission22 hashtag and inviting people to share images of the number 22 in their daily lives. The next step has been to personalize the lives of the men and women who have died. For that they needed a photographer who could bring heart and soul to the statistic.
CP+B reached out to National Geographic Creative, which represents National Geographic photographers for commercial assignments. David Guttenfelder, a photographer who has dedicated much of his career to covering conflict around the world, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a natural fit for the photo series the agency wanted to create, called the War at Home.
Guttenfelder was in the process of moving back to the U.S. with his family after having spent 20 years away—transitioning from the life of an international photojournalist to one that promised to be notably different.
Even though he dedicated much of his career to photographing in war zones, Guttenfelder says that that coverage felt like only half the story. Coming back to the U.S., following up on the lives of the young men and women he had met in Iraq and Afghanistan, was something that had already been on his mind.
“This is the kind of story I would have wanted to do anyway,” Guttenfelder says of his first noneditorial assignment. And this is what made it a comfortable moral and ethical “yes” for him.
Guttenfelder visited five families around the country who had lost loved ones to suicide after returning home from war. In his conversations with them, he discovered that not only did he share a connection with the soldiers who witnessed the front lines, but also something more: “In each case, I had been there at the same time, in some cases in the same battalion,” he says. Talking with the mother of one soldier, he found out they had even been stationed in the same base in southern Afghanistan during one of the biggest battles of the war. Guttenfelder was able to answer her questions about what it had been like, something her son had been reluctant to share.
Guttenfelder’s quiet black-and-white photographs illustrate the places where the veterans took their lives—their homes—while showing us their absence. In addition to appearing on the Mission22 website, the photographs will also be presented on billboards in the hometowns of veterans who have taken their lives—and in print advertisements. There are also plans in the works for an exhibit.
How has this crossover into a commercial assignment with an advertising firm been for Guttenfelder? “I think we can learn something from them,” he says of the people he worked with. “I was happy to hear there would be billboards. My measure before would have been the front page of a newspaper or spread in a magazine. But I am trying to be open-minded in reaching different audiences, not thinking of my work as documentary but as developing a concept or campaign that speaks clearly.”