Monday, April 18, 2011


Former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara, C Detachment, 38th Personnel Services Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, US Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA, January 2010. 48”x 48” Chromogenic Color Print. Photo (c) by Jennifer Karady.

In a burned-out building, a woman in army uniform sits bolt upright in bed, a pile of money by her feet, and a large pink bunny attached to a nearby wall. What sounds at first blush like a mystery to be unraveled—and perhaps it is that, too—is actually the subject of an arresting image, one in a series of photographs by Jennifer Karady called “In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

For each of the photos, a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars has told Karady the story of a traumatic wartime experience, which the photographer then works with the veteran to re-stage back home in the U.S., with friends and family members playing other roles as needed. These tableaux vivants mix artificial and natural light to create eerily hyper-real scenes, each with a potent allegorical feel. In one, a soldier crouches as a garbage truck passes nearby, hands over his ears (the truck's sound reminds him of being it by a mortar); in another, a soldier stands alert at the top of a flight of stairs, wielding a couple books as one would wield a gun (they are about the same weight, he says); still another has a soldier sitting on a hospital cot in the open air as wounded people in hospital gowns stagger in the field behind him. The photos evoke how veterans’ powerful memories of war carry over to their lives back in the U.S.

The photos are stunning on their own, and the accompanying back-stories (presented in text at an exhibition last year, and in the catalogue) add extra poignancy. As Karady describes in her artist’s statement, the process is a careful one, and takes about a month for each photo. Aside from the more technical work of creating sets and gathering props, Karady conducts extensive interviews with each veteran, then works closely with him/her to conceive of and rehearse the scene, and photograph it. The collaborative nature of the process is evident in the pictures; as artful as they are, there’s no feeling here of the artist condescending to her subjects, or studying them from an anthropological distance. Karady writes in her artist’s statement that the process is meant to be helpful, and is “conceptually related to cognitive behavioral therapy.”

Documentarians, journalists, and other storytellers always face ethical questions (or they should, anyway) when telling or mediating another person’s story: what kind of social power each person holds, how much control the subject has over the final product and its distribution, who makes money or otherwise benefits from the story, and so on. Karady seems to have managed an effective and respectful process that—no coincidence—has yielding an affecting set of photographs and stories. Viewers who’ve known no war may find themselves awakened to some of the parallel lives that veterans live all around them.

See some of the photos and stories for yourself on Karady's website. Here's a New York Times story about a San Francisco exhibition of the photographs last May. And here's an NPR story from last July about the project. 

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