The car’s the scar: photographs of US veterans’ interior lives

ML Casteel’s images of the clutter in ex-servicemen’s vehicles offer a powerful metaphor for the enduring psychological impact of warfare

“When I was growing up in south-west Virginia, it was ingrained in me to thank a veteran if I met one,” says Matthew Casteel, a 37-year-old photographer who works under the name ML Casteel. “That was the norm back then, the understanding that they had made a huge sacrifice for the country. Somewhere along the way, that has changed. Their plight has gotten lost in the bureaucracy of government.”

Casteel’s new book, American Interiors, is a compelling indictment of the way in which US war veterans, the wounded and the war-weary, are often treated on their return to the homeland that demanded that sacrifice of them. What is audacious about Casteel’s approach is that there are no portraits of veterans in the book. Instead, while working as a valet parker at a veteran’s hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where he now lives, he began surreptitiously shooting the interiors of their cars. The result is a grimly powerful, extended metaphor for the neglect and decay that makes their daily lives at home a dogged extension of their lives at war.

Cigarette butts in a dog food can in one car interior.
Cigarette butts in a dog food can in one car interior. Photograph: ML Casteel

“Many of the pictures, with their impersonal and scrutineering eye, have the look of crime-scene photography,” writes Kenneth MacLeish, author of Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community, in his illuminating afterword, and one immediately notes the recurring tropes among the messy interiors: guns, knives, syringes, porn mags, crushed beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. The detritus of survival, of lives altered immeasurably by combat in faraway places.

Many of the interiors are untidy and cluttered, several are encrusted with dirt and piled high with debris. They are decorated with photos of loved ones, lucky charms, holy pictures, flags and littered with discarded children’s toys, walking sticks, medicine bottles, airbrushes, toothbrushes, socks and lottery tickets. In one photo, a baseball cap bears the words “Life Is Crap”. In another, someone has written “Better days!!” on a tiny US flag.

“I parked hundreds of cars a week and most were in some state of neglect and disrepair,” says Casteel, who honed the project during his time as a postgraduate student on the renowned MFA photography course at Hartford, Connecticut. “The symbolism of neglect was pervasive in the cars, but also in the folks that were driving them. I met several guys who actually lived in their cars.”

One driver leaves out his Bible and a hunting knife.
One driver leaves out his Bible and a hunting knife. Photograph: ML Casteel

The statistics speak for themselves: one in seven homeless adults in America is a military veteran; one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder; every day, 22 veterans take their own lives, averaging one suicide every 65 minutes.

Casteel worked as a valet parker at the hospital for seven years, during which time he took thousands of photographs of the car interiors using a small camera, working fast so as not to be detected by his fellow workers. The project took on an almost obsessive dimension for him: “At times it did feel like I was shooting the same interior of the same car,” he says.

I first came across Casteel and his work five years ago while working with Hartford students on an intensive weekend of seminars and workshops in Berlin. It was easily the strongest series I saw, but the early dummy of the book he showed me contained more than 150 images. The finished work comprises 55. “I was maybe a bit lost in it back then,” says Casteel, laughing. “But I knew it had a formal consistency because I was creating the view of the interior from the driver’s seat over and over. It was what the vets’ saw when they looked around them.”

Details of images from American Interiors
Details of images from American Interiors. Photograph: ML Casteel

The car is an enduring symbol of America and American photography, synonymous with mobility, freedom and independence, but here that symbolism is upended. “That dream of freedom that the car symbolises doesn’t always translate into real freedom,” says Casteel.

Surprisingly, many of the vehicles shown in the book belong to veterans of much earlier US wars: Vietnam, Korea, and even a few from the second world war. Of the 21 million military veterans in America, 3 million served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Unless they were seriously injured, the vets from more recent conflicts in the Gulf and Afghanistan would park their own cars,” says Casteel. “This was an ageing population. They were, to a man, tough. They were hanging in there and the veterans’ hospital was a place where they could go and be with their own people, be with guys who understood what they had been through and what they were going through.”

An image from American Interiors by M L Casteel.

Casteel befriended several veterans, even visiting their homes to take formal portraits, but he says “it always came down to the cars”. He has shown the resulting images to several of the vets he befriended – the usual reaction is “my car doesn’t look like that”. He plans to make a special edition of the book with proceeds going to a veterans’ charity.

“I heard so many stories and saw so many guys struggling with addiction or health problems relating to what they had been through that it kind of humbled me,” he says. “I grew up as a rebellious teenager who played in punk rock bands and was involved in anti-war activism. Back then it was just ‘fuck war!’, but I never really considered the human plight of individual veterans. The ones I met were struggling, but they were also cool guys and I was always struck by their generosity. They were inspiring to be around, for sure. They changed my way of thinking.”

American Interiors by ML Casteel is published by Dewi Lewis (£28)


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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