• Isabella Ji

The Hidden Lives of Our Heros




Growing up in south-west Virginia, a state with a large veteran population, Matthew Casteel was instilled with the mindset of thanking veterans whenever he met one.

“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,” says Casteel, a 37 year old photographer who now works under the name ML Casteel.

Casteel’s book, American Interiors, shows the way the wounded and the war-weary U.S. war veterans are treated when they return to their homeland. In his novel, there are no portraits of veterans and their age, name, or location. Instead, the collective body of work consists of the same composition: photographs shot from the driver’s seat that illustrate the psychological repercussions of war.

“You can never understand a veteran’s experience because you weren’t there. You didn’t see what they saw, so you wouldn’t understand.” -ML Casteel


The Beginning

About eleven years ago, Casteel moved to North Carolina and immediately started looking for a job. He started off by parking cars at the Veteran Affairs Hospital and was later promoted to manager of the valet service. He was not only spending more than 50 hours a week at the hospital, but he was also the first person that people would see when they came to the hospital. By working at the hopsital, Casteel got inspired to help convey the pain and stories of these veterans.


Interior Lives

Many of the car interiors are unkempt and have varying states of disrepair. Others are encrusted with dirt and filled with piles of debris. The state of the car is similar to looking at a crime-scene; guns, syringes, knives, cigarettes, beer cans, porn magazines, and overflowing ashtrays. Some cars were decorated with photos of loved ones, religious photos, good luck charms, children’s toys, medicine bottles, toothbrushes, clothing, and lottery tickets.

“I parked hundreds of cars and most were in some state of neglect and disrepair,” says Casteel, who began the project as a postgraduate student in Hartford, Connecticut, studying the course on MFA photography. “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.”
An enduring symbol of America is a car, which symbolizes mobility, freedom and independence. However, the symbolism here is the opposite. Often times, the car's symbolism of freedom does not always translate into real freedom.

American Interior

Veterans have experienced life-changing events that cause a divide in our population: people who have seen war and people who have not. Casteel explains that someone would pull up at the VA Hospital with an open bottle of whiskey in their side panel or with guns and other weapons in the seat. And there are other vets who deceivingly look like they have it all together with clean cars. However, behind the superficial surface hides the anxiety, depression, and suffering. During the years working as a valet parker, Casteel took thousands of photographs of the car interiors using a tiny digital camera that he can put in his pocket. He works fast so he is not seen by his fellow workers. Over time, he felt that he was shooting the same interior of the same car. He took pictures from the driver’s seat over and over again, creating images of what the veterans saw when they looked around them. Casteel complied 55 of these photos into his book, American Interiors. Through the images in his book, you can see how he looks at objects through the lens of environmental photography. He concentrated on how the physical space around a person impacts the person’s personal psychology, which in turn affects the space.



Interpretive Photographs

The heart of Casteel’s project was the idea of looking at the car interiors from an anonymous view.

“All these photographs were made from the driver’s seat, and that’s very important. You are the driver. It puts you into a place where you’re kind of complicit.”

For any photo Casteel takes, there are multiple perspectives. He understands that photographs are great at being informative and showing a surface view, so his main goal is for the viewer to dive deeper when looking at an image. This is the reason why he presents the photos in his own unique way. The viewers come into the book knowing that the photos will be about veterans, but Casteel wants them to draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the image.


Meaningful Takeaways

After years of working with veterans, Casteel can say that veterans are a very underserved and overlooked population. Casteel explains that these veterans just want to live their lives, but it is difficult now that their lives are pretty broken. Casteel hopes that his book, American Interiors, makes a statement about how veterans are treated and the lack of support for them. He hopes the images allow the viewer to dig deeper and ask why things are the way they are and encourage reform.

“Obviously it isn’t free of an agenda - I’m an anti-war person - but at the end of the day, I think if there’s one thing I’m trying to say, it’s that way often wrecks people’s lives, and not necessarily in the ways that are commonly understood,” proclaims Casteel.


Insightful Statistics

  • One in seven homeless adults in the U.S. is a military veteran.

  • One in five veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Among the 21 million military veterans in the U.S., 3 million served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • 22 veterans take their own lives everyday, averaging one suicide every 65 minutes.

You can find out more information on veterans and ways to help here: https://www.va.gov/index.htm

Works Cited


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