At the end of May 2011, photographer Eric Michael Johnson found himself in Russia with a week of free time after completing another project. Based on a newspaper article he discovered, which had no pictures, and with an avid interest in social issues, he sought to photograph a medical facility catering to the veterans and families of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Much of his week was spent negotiating with Russia’s government to allow him access, leaving him with a single day to photograph the facility. But with the assistance of a translator to guide him, he pulled it off.
The facility, called “Rus,” started as a high-end resort for Communist Party VIPs. According to Johnson’s site, the facility completed its renovations as a sanatorium in 1991, with the goal to provide physical, psychological and social treatments to veterans and their families.
Johnson tends to focus his work on social issues, and health care and healing are topics that recur in his photographs. “I have always had a strong interest in science. While in business school in California, I escaped one summer to take a biology lab class at Harvard University, which had a large impact on me. The stories all revolve around the struggle to survive, and healing is an important part of what I want to document,” he says.
Johnson says the sanatorium attracted his attention because of the parallels between the veterans in Russia and the veterans in the United States returning from the war in Afghanistan. “I was curious as to what veteran treatment looks like 20 years after a conflict has ended.”
“The sanatorium has a whole set of treatments for those people who cannot use traditional chemical drugs. It made me think about how, even if I don’t fully understand some of their treatment methods, it’s clear support and the sense of community are a large part of recovery."
Some of the treatments are what many might consider “alternative.” They include acupuncture, dry carbonic acid gas baths, electroacupuncture diagnostics, bioresonance therapy and hirudotherapy, or leech therapy.
“Leech therapy sounds exotic, but it’s a very old technique and quite common around the world today,” says Johnson. “The leeches can sense you walking near the jars and become active and swim to the top hoping to find a host. I found it a little unsettling, but the staff and patients were very comfortable with it. The treatment is especially good for people with cardiovascular diseases.”
During his visit, Johnson says he was given complete access and found the doctors and patients very willing to talk about their treatment. “This kind of cooperation is unique. I had a great translator that knew how to give me space to concentrate on photographs. When you have permission, you can go room to room and work rather methodically. A previous project of mine in a homeless shelter was much more difficult because I wasn’t given access, so I had to check myself in and make friends to gain trust.”
Johnson says that the sanatorium has invited him to return, and he is working on grants to allow him to spend a week there to further document the veterans’ ongoing treatment. He says he would also like to document veteran treatment in the United States to compare the two.
On his website, Johnson states that he doesn’t see this project as advocating alternative therapies but rather as a look at the continuing need for treatment for veterans long after their war is over. “As a photographer, I can only hope to explore the different methods in which we as humans cope with the aftermath of war. What drives me is knowing that long after ruling parties change and borders are redrawn, the effects of war remain.
“One of the patients I met while visiting was a Russian army war photographer. He told us that he still has problems dealing with what he witnessed and feels extremely grateful he is allowed to come to the sanatorium every year. It’s especially hard when you know the veterans suffered their injuries over 20 years ago."
- Cody McCloy, CNN