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A Portrait of a Responder

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A paramedic rests his head on his arm and leans against the ambulance’s back door for support. The stretcher is missing and discarded items lay forgotten on the floor, remnants of what obviously was a chaotic, traumatic scene. Closer inspection reveals a teddy bear seated in the back of the ambulance, making the scene even more heartwrenching.

It is unclear whether the patient lived or died in this scenario. The intent of the scene is to get first responders to open up and discuss what happened on that and other traumatic calls, and how the particularly bad calls affect them.

The particular scene described also is a depiction of one of many images featured on Daniel Sundahl’s website, DanSun Photo Art (http://www.dansunphotos.com). Sundahl takes photographs of these real-life incidents and transforms them into artistic emergency response portraits.

Sundahl knows a lot about his subject, as he also is a first responder. A paramedic/firefighter for the last 11 years with the City of Leduc, Canada, Sundahl said he hopes his photo artistry will help save more first responders’ lives.

Sundahl, who previously was a dive master, actually was inspired to become a paramedic after he came upon a serious accident.

“Part of the training to be a dive master is learning first aid and basic medical training,” says Sundahl. “I really enjoyed the medical aspect of it. Then one day, we came upon a really bad accident involving a dump truck and I just jumped out to start helping. My friends thought I was crazy. I thought that because I knew first aid that I could help. But I discovered that I really just knew basic first aid.”

After that incident, his brother told him he would make a great paramedic.

“I love doing it,” Sundahl said. “But I’ve also seen my share of trauma and it has affected me.”

Then about six months ago, Sundahl heard a speaker discuss post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“He spoke about a Canadian study in which 11 firefighters in 12 weeks had committed suicide,” says Sundahl. “That statistic really got to me. I felt inspired after that to start doing the firefighter and paramedic portraits.”

Sundahl had already been creating portraits of his family members, pets, fellow firefighters and their families. His new venture into depicting post-traumatic scenes has helped him cope with his own PTSD.

“It has been a very therapeutic experience to process these photos,” Sundahl says. “All of the images are based on actual calls. I’ve had amazing response from my fellow firefighters and emergency medical colleagues. It really has struck a nerve with emergency responders and the public.”

Sundahl transforms the photographs into portraits via digital editing using several software programs. He also inserts other elements, such as placing a graphic of an angel to accompany a distressed paramedic on the back of the truck, or an image of the patient’s soul lingering while the physical body remains covered on the stretcher. The images are emotional, and that is intentional.

“I really want to bring awareness about PTSD,” Sundahl says. “When I first publish an image, I get hundreds of comments. Some say it’s horrible what I’m portraying, but I say that it’s showing reality. It’s what police and paramedics and firefighters deal with all the time. It’s not meant to be gratuitous. It’s meant to open people’s eyes. Most emergency workers deal with what they witness in their own ways. To see the images, it allows them to start the discussion. Many of the e-mails I receive are from people who have severe PTSD. And after they reach out to me from seeing the images, I can reference grief counseling and support groups to help them.”

As part of his mission to create awareness, Sundahl donates some of his images to campaigns about PTSD and uses proceeds from some of the images to help the families of fallen first responders depicted in the images.

“PTSD has always been around but no one really talks about it,” says Sundahl. “It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation. My main goal is to raise awareness of PTSD among paramedics, firefighter, police officers and the public. I want to use these images to let them know that they are not alone.”

First responders who want their own photographs preserved as portraits can e-mail Sundahl via his website. The cost of the converted images starts at $150.

“I can give instructions on how to take the photo,” Sundahl says. “It takes me two to three days to create the image, depending on the quality of the original photo and the layers added.”

Contact Daniel though this website at www.dansunphotos.com.

Susan E. Sagarra is a writer, editor and book author based in St. Louis, MO.

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