Photographer M L Casteel’s new book American Interiors begins with a stark page of facts that illustrate how the United States has failed its returning veterans, whether in the low wages and poor healthcare, or the rates of homelessness and suicide. What follows are not portraits of the people he got to know over the years working in the valet parking of a Veterans Affairs hospital in North Carolina, but photographs inside their cars. In their assemblies of mundane and highly personal objects, they give a quiet insight into veterans’ trauma and attempts to move forward.
“The photographs in this volume anticipate, play with, and frustrate the presumed hermetic alienation between soldier and civilian, between those who have ‘been there’ in one or another capacity and those who have not,” writes Ken MacLeish, an assistant professor of medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, in a book essay. “The car strikes me as an unexpectedly perfect way to break down this distinction: it is generic but personal, relatable but private, mobile but homelike.”
Recently released by Dewi Lewis Publishing, American Interiors has something of Stephen Shore’s 1970s American Surfaces in its methodical, yet empathetic, approach to this often overlooked side of the return from combat or other military service. With permission from the veterans, Casteel took intimate shots of canes leaning on the passenger seat, guns and Bibles stuck in the door panel, children’s toys tossed in the back seat, and family photos beaming down from the sun visor.
While the details that initially jump out, such as the hypodermic needles and an oxygen tube curled by a pack of cigarettes, suggest enduring pain (and recall that they were photographed at a hospital), there are also the signs of rebuilding. A few stapled white pages labeled “Wellness Recovery Action Plan” catch the light from the passenger window; a tiny American flag inscribed “Better days!!” rests on a console. Some cars are pristine, with just a baseball cap reading “Life Is Crap” or a box of tissues on the passenger seat hinting at ongoing healing. Other vehicles are grimy with signs they are being used as homes, with socks, underwear, toothbrushes, and empty food containers littering the floor.
“Photographers have long used similar strategies to speak of the unphotographable, showing something — spaces or people’s possessions — as stand-ins for, or reflections of, people’s inner worlds,” states photography writer Jörg M. Colberg in a book essay. “As humans, after all, we surround ourselves with very specific things, and we create and maintain spaces that we live in according to what we feel is best for us, regardless of how much (or little) time we consciously think about it.”
It would have been easy for American Interiors to slip into exploitation, by zooming in on the more sordid decay and half-consumed fast food meals. Instead, each photograph is a still life of artifacts that create a shadow of a person who is absent, and their efforts towards normalcy. Despite the limitations of the car space, Casteel makes each photograph a reflection of an individual. Almost every image is from the perspective of the driver, visually putting you in their place, to consider how the experiences of war infest everyday life, and how the country has fallen short in its care for those who have served.