Michael A. McCoy on Invisible Wounds and being Black in America

From 'Invisible Wounds'

Michael A. McCoy is a photojournalist and two-tour Iraq War veteran from Baltimore, Md. He was selected for the coveted New York Portfolio Review in 2018, and TIME has included Michael in their “12 African American Photographers You Should Follow Right Now.” His long term personal projects advocate for PTSD awareness as well as social change. Our interview, originally scheduled for a Monday, was postponed after Michael got a last minute photo assignment. Our interview today has been edited for length and for clarity.

Register today to join Michael A. McCoy at Focus on the Story 2019, where he’ll host a one day workshop as well as individual portfolio reviews.

Mike Jett: How did your assignment go yesterday? What were you shooting?

Michael A. McCoy: I was a shooting a boxer. Are you familiar with Lamont Peterson? Lamont is a two time world welterweight champ, and he has a fight coming up. I was sent out to photograph him during his workout.

Jett: I want to talk about your series Invisible Wounds. How did that project come to light?

McCoy: It really wasn’t supposed to manifest itself as a project, but two years ago I was going into a PTSD treatment facility. My original plan wasn’t to bring a camera, but my mentor Jamel Shabazz suggested that I take my camera. At first I was like “Nah man, I’m not going to take my camera with me. I need to go ahead and work on my stuff.” And he said “Hey, you’re not going to work on your stuff all the time. You’ll have some downtime to relax.” I said “okay,” and wound up taking my camera.

Jett: How did you first approach the other veterans about making their photographs?

McCoy: It just came natural. I mean, I built a trust. I didn’t immediately pull my camera out. I was there maybe – a month or so, give or take?

Jett: You were there a month before you pulled the camera out?

McCoy: Yeah.

Jett: How long did you spend photographing the series?

McCoy: From that moment? Maybe two and a half months, give or take.

Jett: Did you realize you were making a story about PTSD at the time?

McCoy: For me it was just a form of relaxation. And it was also an opportunity for me to connect with other veterans. I didn’t even look at this as a project until months later. My main thing was photographing these men and women. You know, for most of these folks, one, they don’t like to be photographed, and two, some of these people don’t even have photographs of themselves. So for them it was knowing someone who you can relate to, who can create an image of you. I mean, you should have seen the looks on some of these guys faces once they looked at their pictures.

Jett: That’s beautiful. Was it important for you to show that PTSD doesn’t manifest itself in a certain way?

McCoy: Yeah. And that’s the thing. And that’s why I call it Invisible Wounds – because PTSD doesn’t have a look. PTSD can be anywhere. It can be your mailman, it could be a police officer, it could be your lawyer, it could be your doctor. Trauma does not discriminate against anybody. No matter your race, your social or economic background, no matter your status. Everyone thinks mental illness has a look. I mean, I had a roommate while I was there. This gentleman, he was a full bird Colonel. And for those who don’t know what a Colonel is, I mean, he runs shit. It’s a lot of responsibility. He did twenty some odd years in the military before he retired. He also worked for a major defense contractor. This gentleman made really great money, had a really great life. He had a family. But during his time in the military, between the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf War, this man was in charge of other men. And he lost over 50 soldiers. And as a commanding officer, sometimes you develop relationships with those soldiers, and that’s painful. But for someone to look at him and say, “Hey, this guy is a decorated soldier. How do we know if he has PTSD? He looks fine to me.” No. PTSD, anxiety, depression, it doesn’t have a look. It can be anywhere and anybody.

Jett: One of the surprises for me was finding your Invisible Wounds photos in a music video by Jamie Kent. Can you tell me a little bit about that collaboration?

McCoy: Shout out to Jamie. I mean, he caught me off guard. I was sitting there one day and I get this email, and it was from Jamie. And I’m like “This is some damn spam. What the hell does a country music singer want with me?” But I reached out to him, and we connected, had a really good vibe, and I really liked his vision and the passion that he had for veterans. Jamie didn’t see skin color, and even though he didn’t serve, he had a soft spot in his heart for veterans, because he felt that veterans were underrepresented. Especially veterans who live with mental illnesses. He felt that this was his contribution to raise awareness. It was definitely an honor to help him with his project.

Jett: Shifting from Invisible Wounds to your series Black in America: Did you find similarities between telling the story of veterans coping with PTSD, and telling the story of being black in America?

McCoy: I mean, both of the stories are very similar. Being a veteran, you’re an underdog. Being black in America, you’re also the underdog. Black in America just came naturally. I’m a black man, so every morning I put my pants on and go outside, and there’s a slim chance I may have to deal with some issue. There’s a slim chance I may get stopped by the police. There’s a slim chance that I may not make it home. And a lot of that can be found in being a soldier. By going into combat and experiencing trauma, you can develop PTSD. Just like being a black man in America, you can develop PTSD. You can develop anxiety, depression, other forms of mental illness. With the Invisible Wounds and the Black in America series, I use photographs to tell a story, to inform and educate people who may not know what it’s like to live with PTSD, and most certainly for individuals who do not know what it’s like to live as a black man. Sometimes people can be judgmental, they can jump to conclusions, or they may just simply not understand. So in that way I can use my photographs as a tool to educate somebody, so that they could hopefully make a change.

Jett: What’s a story you would like to tell with your camera if you had the access or opportunity?

McCoy: Black farmers. You don’t really hear a lot about black farmers, and I would definitely love to go tell that story. I think that black farmers are just like black veterans. Those guys go through their struggles, and they are trying to maintain, and they often have a hard way to go. I’d like to bring awareness to that and shed light on those situations.

Jett: The first time I saw you in person, we were both covering the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings outside the Supreme Court. How do you approach reportage, compared to your advocacy and PTSD awareness work?

McCoy: That’s a good question. Whenever I approach anything, I look at my subject with dignity. Regardless of what it is. I could be shooting a Klan rally and I’ll still treat everyone as people. I go into it with compassion. I don’t go in with the mindset of “I just need to get what I need to get” and get out of there. Once you come into a situation with love and care, it makes things a little easier, and gives things a different look.

Jett: When you’re not on an assignment, what makes you stop and make a photograph?

McCoy: I don’t really have a process, I mean, I just go off of vibes. That’s it. Sometimes I just get that feeling. When I’m out in the street, and you know this as a street photographer, everyone says, “I want to go out there and create this body of work” and they go out with a theme. “I’m going to shoot people with red hats on a day or shoot people carrying umbrellas.” Once you go out there with that mindset, and you don’t find what you’re looking for, you tend to miss everything else. But I do have things that I look for on the regular. One of those things is black fatherhood. I love black fatherhood, because there are a lot of myths talking about black fathers being absent from their child’s lives. So, wherever I am, regardless if I have my camera or my cell phone and I see black fatherhood? That’s what I’m doing. I’m photographing that.

Jett: So aside from joining us at the Focus on the Story festival, what else is on the docket for you this year?

McCoy: Who knows, man? I’ve been doing workshops. Taking people out, and trying to introduce them to photography, or improve their skills. I have a group of gentleman that I met while I was at the New York Times Portfolio Review last year. We go by the name of “Black Shutter.” It’s a group of black photojournalists and documentary photographers, based throughout the country and some parts of Canada. We’re putting together an exhibition in Sacramento later this year. I’d also like to do more work with veterans. Last year the Washington Post put out an article that the VA allocated something like $6.2 million dollars for suicide prevention advertising, and they only spent like 50-70k. It’s less than one percent, man. 22 veterans a day commit suicide and that money should have been better used. That right there could have prevented God knows how many deaths. So I’d like to have a platform where I can introduce veterans to photography. It’s therapeutic for them, it’s therapeutic for me, and at the end of the day, you save lives. I had a veteran the other day hit me up and he’s like, “Yo, I’m glad I saw your work. I want to get into photography so I can better manage. So I can live.” And that right there is bigger than any paycheck or commission you can ever make.

All Images © Michael A. McCoy. You can see more of his work on his website. Register today to join Michael A. McCoy at Focus on the Story 2019, where he’ll host a one day workshop as well as individual portfolio reviews.

Mike Jett is a photographer based in Washington, D.C., and Managing Director of Focus on the Story. You should follow him on Instagram.