Practicing medicine is an art, but for one firefighter/paramedic, practicing art is also medicine.
Daniel Sundhal uses art to work through the emotional tolls of a career in EMS, and he’s helped countless others along the way. His new book Portraits of an Emergency is a collection of gripping images that show the emotional aftermath of a responder in an emergency’s wake.
Looking at the pieces begs the question, could art save the world? Or maybe a few EMTs’ and paramedics’ lives?
Sundahl’s photo-based pieces are recreated scenes of actual calls he’s been on. After meticulously staging and photographing the scene, the images are digitally enhanced.
“I’m really thinking about the details of the call, I’m really processing that call, and then it’s like it’s gone from my brain,” said Sundahl. “For me, it’s a way of processing those calls in my head. I’m really lucky I have an outlet to do that. A lot of others don’t.”
As a paramedic for the past 15 years and a firefighter for the past 13, Sundahl works for a fire department in Leduc, a small town near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He took a circuitous route to becoming a medic, first serving as an English teacher and then a divemaster in the Caribbean. It was after taking a first aid dive class and coming across a vehicle collision later that day that his interest in becoming a medic was sparked. Though he’s been doing public safety art for only a couple of years, Sundahl comes from an artistic family and has attended music school.
Sundahl is often invited to exhibit his art and speak at conferences about emergency responder emotional wellness. However, he finds that even when speaking to nonindustry crowds (e.g., photography clubs who want to learn the technical aspects of the genre), the audience’s questions invariably revolve around the powerful content of the images.
For some of the emergency responders who see Sundahl’s art, it’s touched their lives. “I was a bit nervous of what my fellow paramedics and firefighters would think, showing the more vulnerable and fallible side of [being an] emergency worker, and that we get messed up by the calls that we do,” he said. “But then I thought, ‘No, I’m going to do it.’ Once I posted the first two, that’s when it went viral and other firefighters and medics connected to it.”
Ben Harris, an EMT and paramedic student in San Diego, Calif., received the book as a gift. “When my wife first got me the DanSun photo book, my first thought was ‘Oh … a book.’ Then as I started reading the descriptions and looking at every detail, I began to cry,” he said. “The photos captured a side of EMS that no one in our lifetime has ever been able to do. It shows our struggles, our hardships, and our losses. Like most of us in a busy EMS system, we have no time to cope with a loss before we are off to the next emergency. This book is a way that we realize that we are not alone.”
Sundahl’s images showcase the struggles, hardships and losses EMS providers face every day.
The growing traction and acceptance of his work are indicative of the changes in the “suck it up and move on” culture of emergency responders-a culture that’s stifled many from getting the help they need for years. A recent study revealed alarming rates of emergency responder stress and thoughts of suicide, showing about 37% of respondents had contemplated suicide as compared to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) national average of around 4%.1 Emergency responders also experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the general public.2
For some time, the therapeutic effects of art have been recognized in other arenas, but now they’re catching on for EMS. “Art such as Sundahl’s touches the inner spirit and can promote healing through evoking one’s imagination,” said Dan Willis, a retired police captain from La Mesa, Calif., and author of a book on emotional survival for public safety. “It speaks to hope, understanding, compassion, and the inherent goodness within the sacrifice and selfless service of all first responders.”
An extensive traveler, Sundahl is amazed and humbled by the reception he meets by emergency responders across the world who’ve deeply connected to his work.
One woman whose firefighter husband suffered from debilitating PTSD reached out to Sundahl, crediting him with finally helping her understand what her husband was experiencing. After a significant strain on their marriage, her husband told her, “Look at this guy’s website-that’s how I’m feeling.” Others have sent him videos of their reactions when they see the pieces they’ve commissioned for the first time.
Sundahl works with fire, EMS and law enforcement, and does moving tributes for responders killed in their line of duty. He’s invited to shoot on location and accepts submissions from clients who have photos for editing. His next frontier will be covering PTSD among the military, an industry that’s in some ways more devastated by the debilitating effects of prolonged exposure to trauma.
Part of the proceeds of the newly released Portraits of an Emergency will go to a scholarship fund to send emergency responders to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) World Congress. He’s also set up a GoFundMe account to raise more money for the cause. For more information, visit www.dansunphotoart.com.
1. Newland C, Barber E, Rose M, et al. Critical stress: Survey reveals alarming rates of EMS provider stress & thoughts of suicide. JEMS. 2015;40(10)30-34.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015.) Suicide facts at a glance. Retrieved Aug. 7, 2015, from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf.