When Nampa Fire Capt. Frank Beauvais reached out to a photographer friend in February, he wasn’t looking for photos that he could hang on his mantelpiece. He just wanted to better understand his experience with post-traumatic stress.
For several months, Beauvais had been working with a counselor to try to understand and heal from PTSI, or post-traumatic stress injury, that had left him struggling and feeling disconnected from his wife and two children. In the counseling sessions, Beauvais had found he lacked the words to express what he was feeling. In an effort to try to communicate how he felt, he set up a private photography session with his friend Macey Snelson, “where he could use art to express what he was experiencing inside,” Snelson.
“There was never any intention to show the photos beyond him and his family and his counselor,” said Snelson, who works for the Meridian Library District and does photography on the side.
During the session, the two friends just talked about how Beauvais was feeling, sussing out graphic scenes he’d been exposed to as a firefighter. The post-traumatic stress was “an aggregate of things,” Beauvais said, “specifically children that passed away,” that continued to weigh on him.
That photo shoot would produce a picture that captured the attention of hundreds of people online and won the Fourth Annual Studio Boise Photo Contest in July. It would also become an important part of Beauvais’ healing process and, hopefully, help others in his situation find healing.
‘I FELT BROKEN’
Beauvais decided to start seeing a counselor for his PTSI — something firefighters are five times more likely to develop than the general public — for his family, “wanting something better for people that I love,” he said.
“I felt broken,” he said. The feelings were “a product of what I’ve seen and done here in Nampa,” he said. “I have a business here; I make my life here.” In addition to being a firefighter, Beauvais founded Snake River CrossFit with his wife, Michaela.
“Not only have I gained a ton in this city, I have also experienced a lot,” he said. “My story is the story of Nampa.”
The impact of post-traumatic stress on first responders was a focus of the recent legislative session, when a bill passed to provide first responders medical coverage for PSTI treatment, even if no physical injury is present.
The issue was again in the spotlight a few months later, in a tragic way. In June, Boise senior firefighter Charlie Ruffing, who had been receiving treatment for PTSI, completed suicide. At his funeral, mourners came together to not only honor his memory, but to speak about the need to root out any stigma that may surround seeking treatment for a PTSI.
Snelson said the photo shoot with Beauvais was really hard because she “had a friend who was hurting,” but also because of how moving the photos were.
“As an artist — and a very selfish artist — I was like, ‘These are the best photos I have ever taken, and no one will ever see them,’” Snelson said.
After the photo shoot, things were quiet. Beauvais continued his counselling sessions and worked to heal. He said he couldn’t look at the photos; “it was too hard.” When Snelson looked at the photos, she saw the pain and intensity, but she also saw something else: an opportunity to help others.
Snelson is part of a Facebook group for photographers. She posted a couple of photos from the session to see if someone would still see their emotional impact without knowing the context behind them.
“I just said, ‘Without knowing what this is about, what do you see in these photos?’” Snelson said.
When Snelson came back to the post an hours later, it had over 2,000 likes and comments.
“I went immediately to Frank and I apologized,” she said. Snelson, never meaning for the post to get that much engagement, took it down right away, but messages started to trickle into her inbox, asking if Beauvais was getting help and if he was all right. Others relayed stories of loved ones who had or were experiencing a PTSI.
“‘I have a brother who is a firefighter and I never understood how he felt, but now I get it,’” Snelson said, repeating a message she got after removing the post.
After apologizing for the post, Snelson told Beauvais that it kept coming up that the photo, and what it represented, needed to be talked about.
“There is an opportunity to have a bigger discussion here,” Snelson said, relaying the conversation she had with Beauvais, who agreed.
With Beauvais’ permission, Snelson entered one of the photos from the session in the Fourth Annual Studio Boise Photo Contest, knowing full well that the submission might not amount to anything.
“Then I got notified I was in the top 20 and it’s going to be hung in a gallery,” Snelson said. “I reached out to Frank again — ‘Do you want me to back out? Your face will be 2-feet tall.’ ... He said, ‘Go for it.’”
“Then, shockingly, I won the top prize,” she said.
At the galley opening on July 13, as word got around who took what photo, people began taking Snelson aside, she said, and telling her their person stories.
‘IT’S A VICTORY’
Snelson hopes to photograph other first responders in the future. The photographs were never shot with the intention of making the conversation about Beauvais, she said. Since the photo went public, a number of first responders have reached out to Snelson, she said, to say the picture, and what is represents, is important, and they’d be willing to help.
After nine months of counselling, Beauvais said he is on the other side of the PTSI.
“It’s not just a sad story,” he said. “It’s a victory over this.”
Beauvais’ decision to get help for his family made him feel right about sharing the photo, he said. Hopefully, he said, it will “positively impact other men and women that are suffering and can see a little bit of themselves and know that they’re not the only ones that are feeling this way.”
“You can get help,” he said. “It’s not a forever or an always.”
Beauvais said opening up about PTSI helps get rid of the stigma surrounding talking about it and seeking help. When he first began talking with other firefighters in the Nampa Fire Department, he said many of them were shocked that he was dealing with it.
“A lot of them were going through the same thing, but weren’t ready to reach out,” Beauvais said. “They were like, ‘Dude, let me know how that goes.’”
Snelson said it’s important for people to recognize that first responders are also people.
The Nampa Fire Department is in support of the photo, Beauvais said, and hosts peer support programs to help police and fire officials who are struggling with the effects of their jobs.
Beauvais said hopefully his story and the photograph will help people find the strength to start a conversation that allows someone else to heal.