Veteran Photographer Teaches Others to Look at PTSD from a New Angle
Dalanie Franklin has always been someone people go to for advice. His open mind and non-judgmental character attracted friends, colleagues, and even members of his Army unit chain of command to confide in him.
That openness continues to attract people who sign up for his “Photography Is Medicine” Meetup group in Philadelphia, where the city provides the canvas to express creativity and find healing. He invites veterans and civilians alike.
“The group helps me get up to motivate others and share the knowledge I gained from the military and daily interactions,” Dalanie said. The injured veteran highlighted that he found new purpose behind the camera while helping himself and others relieve stress, worries, and pain from PTSD.
“Just for the moment, with the help of a camera, we create a judgment-free atmosphere where people feel free to be themselves, and where there’s always an ear to listen and a hand to teach a skill.”
Bringing the PTSD Battlefield Home
Dalanie joined the Army in 2004 and served until 2012. His first assignment was field artillery, 1st Armor Division, a rapid deployment unit in Iraq.
Dalanie deployed twice with this unit and lost fellow soldiers on both deployments. During Dalanie’s second deployment, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). That incident marked the beginning of a long battle with chronic pain, debilitating traumatic brain injury (TBI), and PTSD. “Back in 2005 when I came back the first time, I didn’t realize what I was feeling,” Dalanie said.
He returned home to his wife and young family with images that haunted him. “I couldn’t deploy with my unit again after 2008,” Dalanie recalled.
He was prescribed several different medications when he medically retired, but they weren’t working: “It was like bandages that didn’t take care of the cause of the problem. I came close to ending it all. I kept it all inside; I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Finding Freedom with a New ‘Unit’
Dalanie found help when he surrounded himself with other veterans. He went on a Soldier Ride® event in New York hosted by Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).
“Soldier Ride was a great experience for me,” Dalanie said. “It led me to purchasing a bike so I could get my health back on track since my injuries didn’t allow me to continue my regular workout routine.”
The experience was a milestone for his physical and mental health, as well as his sense of community.
“Being in Soldier Ride felt like the military again, speaking to like-minded people that I can relate to and sharing resources to help out,” Dalanie said. “We were a team of veterans that wanted to let the world know that we’re still strong and our pain will just last for the moment. We were motivated to keep pushing because we can make an impact in someone’s life.”
Dalanie said it was inspiring to watch fellow riders with missing limbs not give up and persevere for themselves and others.
After his health began to improve, Dalanie’s wife encouraged him to get a new camera. He took a few photos — and things clicked.
“I felt instantly at peace, and I felt I could be in the present moment through photography,” Dalanie said.
His family noticed a positive change. And when a VA physician recommended Dalanie try practicing mindfulness and meditation, he had no trouble devising a new wellness prescription: “I was already walking with my camera. So, I put the two things together and started a Meetup group where we walk with a camera and take photos of sites in Philly.”
Back Behind the Lens
The Meetup group was born out of Dalanie’s innovative way of staying active in mind and body. For the first gathering, Dalanie’s invite attracted 10 people. A year later, the group has more than 700 members. Throughout 2019, a smaller group of about 20 got together monthly at outdoor venues around Philadelphia. After a hiatus to observe COVID-19 restrictions, the group is cautiously coming back together.
The group draws civilians and veterans, young and old. They walk popular sites in and around Philadelphia and capture their own perspectives.
“I wanted to provide the same relief and quality of life to others, bring them a piece of joy,” Dalanie said.
“No matter where you go, there’s a different feeling. Twenty people can photograph the same thing, and 20 people will take a different photo. We aim to take the negativity out of life. If your photo makes you happy, that’s all that matters. It’s all about the eye of the person, not the equipment they use.
“I see joy in their eyes. Each perspective is unique. I help a little with lighting and angle suggestions, but it’s their photo. It’s a no-judgment zone when we go out. Just pick up your camera or phone, and let’s take a walk in the park.” Dalanie considers himself “a street photographer” and said he finds more fulfillment in spontaneity than in a studio environment.
Dalanie tells the veterans in the group to relearn to hold the camera as they once held their weapon. He fosters an appreciation for the things learned on active duty: Feel empowered, focus on your ability, find purpose, and trust each other.
“What we do differently from other photography experiences is we highlight perspective, and you can bring your cell phone; there’s no judgment.”
In addition to his group’s monthly meetings, Dalanie also makes time to lead WWP groups who appreciate the therapeutic aspects and freedom of taking photos outside.
“I give the group a sense of being in charge, take their suggestions for venues, and empower them to try something new. The Photography Is Medicine group is something I do from the heart.”
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