Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Photographers Focus on War's Human Face

March 22, 2011

In one photograph, a former Israeli soldier swims in a pool, the stumps of his amputated legs prominently floating in the foreground.

In the next, a wrinkled Vietnam War veteran, protectively draped in a blanket, mournfully stares at the camera.

A tattooed soldier is snapped in deep sleep, curled up on an army cot.

In a vivid color shot, a uniformed veteran crouches on a Brooklyn sidewalk as a garbage truck lurches behind him – the sound of which triggers trauma from an attack he experienced in Iraq.

“Soldiers are not just robots, not just heroes,” said Suzanne Opton, a photographer whose work focuses on American soldiers, during a recent panel about photographing soldiers. “We should know them as human beings.“

Photographers Tim Hetherington, Lori Grinker, and Jennifer Karady joined Opton on the panel “Picturing Soldiers: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Contemporary Soldier Photographs.’

The discussion prefaced the screening of Restrepo, which Hetherington co-directed as a documentary chronicling the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The four photographers have steered away from depicting soldiers as patriotic heroes and instead zoomed in on the tender, vulnerable, and traumatic, they told the audience assembled at the RISD Auditorium.

From Liberia’s killing zones to Afghanistan’s isolated valleys, Hetherington has photographed the human side of the soldier. “I don’t mean to sound flippant but the fighting became a little boring to me,” he said. “I realized I was interested in men and masculinity in war.”

His shots, which include huddled American troops playfully chatting during a break in Afghanistan or a soldier with the tattoo “infidel” scrawled across his chest, present an intimate portrayal of war.

The amputated, the scarred, and the traumatized permeate Grinker’s work. “It’s what war does,” said Grinker, a photojournalist who focuses on veterans’ wounds. “I used the human body as a narrative device to tell the story of war.”

In one of her photographs, a former Liberian child soldier, who is missing a leg, solemnly mimics a military salute. In another, a British veteran stares at the viewer, as a tear prepares to roll down his rugged cheek.

Past blends with present in Karady’s photographs, which restage a particularly traumatic moment of a veteran’s wartime experience in a safe environment. “I’m extremely aware that I’m not a therapist,” said Karady, a Brown alumna whose work centers on veterans. “But my hope is that the process is helpful in some way.”

The process takes over a month, she explained. It usually begins with a five-hour interview of the consenting veteran, develops into a collaborative recreation of the chosen event and ends with a post-process discussion. The veteran’s involvement continues past the shooting, as he or she writes an explanatory text to accompany the photograph.

One picture depicts a uniformed soldier brandishing a gun as he crumbles on a pile of wreckage. In a jarring juxtaposition, his wife and children frolic in the garden behind him. Documenting duality, Karady stressed, is crucial to understanding the lives of veterans once they return home.

Opton also put forward a tender vision of the soldier. She asked soldiers at Fort Drum to rest their head on a table, and photographed their faces under strong strobe lights.

“I wanted to take the opposite of the heroic pictures we normally see of soldiers,” she said. “I wanted to photograph a young person who had seen something unforgettable.”

The event was sponsored by RISD’s Fine Arts Division, TC Colley Lecture Series, Departments of Photography and Film/Animation/Video and Painting, and Office of Student Life. It was co-sponsored by Brown University’s Department of Modern Culture and Media and the Watson Institute’s Global Media Project.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11