The Veteran Experience, Before and Behind the Lens
by Faheem Haider
BEACON, New York — War & Memory is drawn from the archives of The Homecoming Project, a photo-based storytelling outfit interested in fostering conversations about the experience of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The show, held at the photography-focused Fovea Exhibitions, features the work of 11 photojournalists and 11 returned veterans chronicling various aspects of the war experience. The photojournalists are all at the top of their respective games — many of them work with VII, Magnum, and the New York Times. One is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Perversely, though you’d expect their work installed on the gallery walls at eye level to look a lot like the work on the Times’s Lens Blog (the long-distance war-watcher’s favorite photo outlet), it actually works in a different way.
The show pictures the negotiations mostly white males from particular socioeconomic backgrounds have made since 2001. It hints at violence, rupture and the miseries of missing someone, or missing a leg. Interestingly, the work by the photojournalists reads a little too invasively, like personal ruin porn. The photographers and you and I are voyeurs, guilty, peeking through a pinhole for some rummaged mess. A soldier who might be holding his family close for the last time perhaps deserves to spend that moment away from the maddening lens, no matter its documentary import.
But the work by veterans and their families works on a more varied register. Consisting of photos, text, and a sole sculpture, it is confessional and cathartic. Monica, a young Hispanic woman, submitted a photo of her last visit home with her two younger brothers, both of whom were killed in combat. On the other side of the photo you can read the last letter one of the young men wrote her. That piece feels like a shrine to a specific memory, and, therefore, holy. A veteran, now studying art, offered a sculpture of a folded flag usually given to the survivors of the dead. This is the story of prisoners of conscience.
2014 is the centenary of World War I: a hundred years of modern warfare, on the ground and from the sky. We’re supposed to draw down from Afghanistan this year, yet Senators McCain and Graham are again demanding another war in Iraq. Last Thursday, President Obama declared that’s a no go, but no doubt we’ll be fighting a war over there all the same. The thing that gets missed in all this bluster is the war at home: that more soldiers now commit suicide than are killed in combat; that class and its corollaries control who goes to war and for how many tours; that soldiers coming home suffer among the highest unemployment rates in this country; that it’s only now the Department of Veterans Affairs has moved things around so that veterans can access the healthcare they were promised and deserve.
War & Memory continues at Fovea Exhibitions (143 Main Street, Beacon, NY) through July 6.