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Photography & PTSD: How One Man Was Healed by Taking Photos

Credit: Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures  
Hamid Amirani - 5.02.19

Overlooked amid the Christmas rush of blockbuster movie releases was Welcome to Marwen, a gem of a motion picture that deserves a wider audience than it received at the box office. It tells the true story of a man with PTSD who was healed by photography. 

Cecilia customers dedicated to photography are motivated to pursue their passion for different reasons. Whether it's a lifelong career or a leisure activity, it's defined by an innate need, that natural desire felt by all creative individuals who just know that it's essential to their wellbeing. For Mark Hogancamp, the subject of Welcome to Marwen, photography saved his life in more ways than one.

Let's start at the beginning. In April 2000, Mark was the victim of a brutal assault outside a bar in Kingston, NY that left him in a coma for nine days. It later emerged that it was a hate crime because the gang of men who viciously beat up Mark had found out he occasionally liked to wear women's clothes as a way to feel close to women. So severe was the attack that it robbed Mark of his memories and he had to relearn eating, writing and walking. 

Once the health insurance that was covering his rehabilitation ran out, Mark had to find his own form of therapy. Traumatized by his experience, he needed an escape from the real world and from living in constant fear. He found it by building a miniature World War II-era Belgian village in his backyard populated almost entirely by female characters. As he told The New York Times in 2011: "Women rule the world. We're just here to keep them company."

The 1:6 scale dolls, a mix of Barbies and World War II action figures, are based on real people in his life. Anna, a Russian princess, is based on his ex-wife, Anastasia. Hogie, an American fighter pilot, is Mark’s alter ego. A group of Nazi SS soldiers represent the thugs who attacked him. The village was initially named Marwen, derived from his name and the name of a waitress he had a crush on, Wendy. It was later expanded to Marwencol, col being taken from Colleen, a neighbor whom Mark fell in love with (in the film, her name is changed to Nicol). 

Retreating into this make believe world, Mark found solace and safety in building the village, buying dolls to add as characters, and imagining stories involving the heroic women protecting Hogie and taking on the Nazis. 

But it didn't stop there. Photography saved his life by enabling him to express himself creatively and earn a living. Prior to the attack, Mark designed retail showrooms for work and drew World War II illustrations for pleasure. Tragically, the assault damaged the left side of his brain that allows this. Unable to draw, Mark turned to photography. With an old Pentax camera, he set about taking photos of the dolls inhabiting his village and their adventures. His mother later bought him a Canon digital camera when the Pentax broke.

The type of camera Mark first used
Credit: Markus Maeder

Mark's work soon caught the attention of a local photographer, David Naugle, who was so impressed with the photos that he helped get them published in the art journal Esopus. Gallery exhibitions followed. Documentary director Jeff Malmberg read about Mark's story in Esopus and was captivated: “That guy couldn’t take a bad photo." Malmberg felt compelled to tell the story. The critically acclaimed and award winning Marwencol took four years to make. One of the documentary's viewers was the Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, who's responsible for classics like the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, and the film that won him his Academy Award for Best Director, Forrest Gump. 

Using a blend of live action and motion capture, Zemeckis brings the village and its doll inhabitants to life, including a gripping and action packed finale that serves as a powerful metaphor for Mark's battles.

Welcome to Marwen is a moving and heartfelt film that should hopefully be discovered by audiences. It shows the strength of the human spirit in overcoming a horrific event and finding hope and healing through artistic expression.

To learn more about Mark Hogancamp and his work, visit his official website:

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