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FF/PM Artist Finds Paintings as a Way to Combat PTSD

Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-03-05
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Daniel Sundahl Images His Job in Digital Artwork


Daniel Sundahl has been a paramedic-firefighter for the city of Leduc (Alberta) which is a suburb south of Edmonton, Canada, for a dozen years.  He became an EMT in 1996 and a paramedic in 2001 and has seen a lot and been exposed to stressful situations in all of that time.  Taking a class on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder opened up Sundahl’s eyes to the inherent dangers of the cumulative effect of job-related stress on his own well-being.  At the same time, much of his off-duty time was being taken up by his hobby of photography and enhancing his photos with digital painting, and it wasn’t long before he realized there was a healthy correlation between the two.

“I’ve always been interested in photography and have dabbled in that work,” Sundahl [left] told 9-1-1 Magazine.  “Then I started doing some landscape photography and turning it into artwork. When these statistics started coming in for PTSD and how many firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers are affected by that, even to the point of committing suicide, I thought about how I could express some of the stressful things that I see through my artwork. I recognized some of the signs of PTSD in myself, and I’ve found it useful for me to process what I’ve seen by recreating the calls through artwork.”

Sundahl’s first painting was of a sadly familiar scene, the death of a patient in his ambulance.  “To begin to process my own feelings, I recreated a scene of a simple code that I’ve done a million times in the back of the ambulance.  I posted it on my Facebook page with just a little write-up saying that 'this was a sample of some of the stuff we see for those of you who aren’t in the industry.' ” 

That painting, posted last July, connected with a lot of public safety responders and quickly went vital across the Internet.  “I don’t think it was so much the image as it was the content,” said Sundahl.  “Or maybe it was the two combined together.  I’ve done images like that in the past and people liked them but they didn’t have that emotional connection that my new stuff does. I think that’s why it’s become so popular.”

Sundahl’s paintings are digital images.  He begins by recreating the scene he has in mind, using friends and co-workers as his models, and taking a photograph of it.  “Then I manipulate it digitally using a tablet and a pen, so a lot of it is like digital painting.”  Sundahl usually prints them out on canvas or metal when he’s finished. “I’ve found that printing on a thin sheet of aluminum tends to complement my artwork really well,” he added.

Daniel’s work possesses a clear insight into the emotional layers of what it takes to work in emergency services day in and day out, which is what makes them so powerful among public safety responders, because they’ve been there too. Sundahl is able to capture stressful moments that particularly resonate with emergency responders by re-enacting the situation, essentially, in order to convey the feelings being felt or by offering a sense of comfort and understanding to the viewer.

“All those pictures are re-staged,” said Sundahl.  “I just try to recreate that scene by trying to think about what I was feeling at the time. The fire and EMS paintings are all based on calls I’ve actually done.  For the law enforcement paintings, I haven’t been in those particular situations, but I’ll talk to the people who have.  I’ll ask them what the scariest thing you can image yourself being in.  One officer told me, ‘If we get shot at, our natural instinct is to take cover and run; get the hell out of there, but we can’t. We’ve got to defend our community, so we need to stay and fight back.’  So when doing those law enforcement paintings, I was trying to portray their willingness to put their life on the line to protect us.”

While his law enforcement and fire/EMS paintings were gaining attention and popularity, Sundahl heard from EMS dispatchers and 9-1-1 call-takers asking him to do a piece for them.  “They were pointing out that the whole thing is raising awareness for PTSD, and the dispatchers are saying ‘we’re dealing with a lot of stuff that people don’t know about,’ ” he said.  “ ‘We’re the unsung people who don’t get credit for what we deal with.”  To be honest I hadn’t thought about that either. So when I started hearing some of their stories I began thinking about how to portray that in a picture.”

Initially Sundahl thought of having a split screen image with the dispatcher on one side and the actual image of the situation being reported on the other, but then decided it would be best to make it a simpler portrayal emphasizing the dispatcher’s reaction to the stress of the job – the aftermath and how the call (or calls) are affecting them. 

“Doing that first dispatcher picture really opened my eyes,” said Sundahl.  “Once I posted that I got a lot more emails from dispatchers telling me some of the things they have gone through.  I was really glad at that, and I want to help promote them, so I began to encourage people to thank their 9-1-1 dispatchers when they see that image, and to give them the credit that they deserve.  I have a few more than I want to do with the 9-1-1 dispatchers, mostly portraying in different ways the aftermath of the call that they just did and how it’s affecting them.”

See more of Daniel Sundahl’s public safety-related artwork on his web site

See related story " 9-1-1, What Is MY Emergency? - My Journey Through PTSD" by dispatcher Angela Beaty, here.



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