Eight years ago, Gordon Traill was medically discharged after serving in the Australian Defence Force for more than a quarter of a century soon after Gordon was diagnosed with PTSD and felt that he'd lost his identity.
“Following my discharge, my mind was like Swiss cheese,” Gordon said. “I can’t tell you what I was thinking or feeling during much of that time. It must have been getting bad, then one day, my wife Shona ordered me out of the house to find a hobby. That’s when I discovered my passion for art and photography - I’ve been captivated by it ever since.”
Gordon spent a total of 28 years in the army, but he did have a break of service during which time the September 11 terrorist attack occurred.
“I was back in uniform six weeks later. They posted me to Vic barracks in Melbourne to run a desk for about two years. And then finally got to Darwin and deployed to Iraq in 2004,” Gordon explained.
Gordon was 48 when he was shipped off to Iraq, packing a one-megapixel point and shoot camera into his kit bag.
“We’ve got four kids, and I wanted to show them what their crazy old man was doing over there,” he said. “While I didn’t know it at the time, this would be the start of my love affair with photography and the arts, but it did take a long time to manifest.”
Gordon was medically discharged in 2006 with severe neck trauma, as well as lower back and knee injuries.
“I loved every day of my career in the armed forces, the mates, the fitness and mixing with friends, so when my time was up, it was really hard. I was lost for around about six years,” Gordon explained. “I drifted during that time because I lost my identity. I was a soldier all my life, and then suddenly, I felt like I was no-one.”
During this period the PTSD took hold. Gordon lost his job and his identity, but with the support of his family, he rediscovered his passion for photography.
“My brother in law just joined photography club, and my wife said I should give it a try, so I went down there and was immediately hooked,” he said.
Gordon shared his photos with family and friends, and while many would agree that families a man’s hardest critics, but all were impressed with his talent for capturing amazing images, and that was all he needed to stoke the artistic passion that burned inside.
“I listened to what they were saying, and then I thought to myself, yeah, I can do this, so I started to switch gears,” Gordon explained. “I spent about four months psych ward when I came back, and my psychiatrist said, I don't want you to become a bitter and twisted veteran. That's always in the back of mind, and I could see that my passion for photography would help me avoid becoming another one.”
Today Gordon travels the world, indulging his passion and sharing it with other veterans. He is an art mentor with the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum and just completed project as the lead photographer for the book The Victoria Cross: Australia Remembers.
“So much love and dedication has gone into the project. We’re currently touring Australia to promote the book and raise money for incapacitated veterans. It’s been an incredible experience,” he said.
This project was so successful that the publisher, he asked Gordon if I'd like to co-author a book on the Invictus Games that was launched on ANZAC Day 2019.
“This book included one of my favourite photos,” said Gordon.
The photo, a swimmer at the side of the pool, with an amazing back tattoo and his prosthetic legs sitting beside the pool, would end up being shortlisted for the Napier Waller Art Prize.
“What attracted me to him was the artwork on his back, the tattoos, he obviously worked with tanks during his time in the armed forces, and when I zoomed in and saw his legs were sitting at the side of the pool it told me the story of where he's been and what he's going through, Gordon explained.
That picture was displayed at the Australian War Memorial and provided the inspiration for Gordon to take on a new challenge.
“I had always had an interest in painting but had never picked up a brush, so I decided to challenge myself and took up painting with the goal of entering a new artwork in the 2020 Napier Waller Art Prize, so in February this year I went and did a weekend workshop, and I was hooked straight away.”
This year Gordon has two entries in the Napier Waller Art Prize. A multi-media collage and a painting of a picture of a poppy he took on the Western Front.
“The multi-media collage includes a big Iraq flag with my images behind it, ripped and burnt and sewn up and stuff like that,” said Gordon. “For the first time, I could put my thoughts about my journey to Iraq, so it's been very cathartic to put that down and say, right, that's it, done that.
“Photography has given me a real sense of purpose. I always thought of myself as a soldier first and foremost. Now I’m a photographer first, soldier second,” he added.
To find out more about the Napier Waller Art Prize, visit https://www.awm.gov.au/Napier-Waller-Art-Prize-hub
Watch Gordon's interview with Trent Dyball