In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and AfghanistanJune 30, 2010
Jennifer Karady’s large-format photographs, currently on view at SF Camerawork, come about as close as any art form can to documenting the experience of a soldier’s return from the battlefield. Blood and guts you will not find here, but weird visions, post-traumatic obsessions, terror, and paranoia abound. The scenes are a surreal and visceral account of America’s newest veterans and the sometimes daily emotional violence they incur as a result of their wartime experience.
Karady’s photographs are not strictly fact-based re-creations, but they represent the truth in so much as individual soldiers remember it. Karady learns each veteran’s unique story, eliciting personal testimony through lengthy interviews. Eventually, an account such as this one by former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara surfaces: “The pink bunny runs into the street … I’m wondering, ‘Why is the pink bunny in the street?’ And I stop, and the pink bunny gets hit by my Humvee. I see myself in the vehicle and I realize that the pink bunny is the bomb.”1 Lara's Humvee was blown up by a roadside bomb in northern Iraq. She survived to face the incident replaying in her mind at night.
For Karady's restaging of the episode—as with all of the “In Country” photographs—the veteran plays herself. The artist’s choice to forgo hiring actors enhances the images’ awkward surrealism. The soldiers often look confused, scared, lost in dreams. There are no Humvees, never much blood. Sergeant Lara sits bolt upright in bed, in full military uniform, staring straight ahead. Her hair is neatly pulled back into a bun. The charred frame of a room surrounds her. A pink bunny, visible through a hole in the wall, sits to the far left. Lara is reliving the war in this nightmare, and as viewers, we are privy to it. The experience of observing the photograph is similarly strange and terrifying.
Another photo depicts a similar scene; but rather than capturing a self-contained nightmare, it portrays a soldier who has seemingly stepped out of reality and into a dream. Inactive Duty Sergeant First Class Mike Sprouse stands by the side of the road staring at an abandoned tire. Behind him, his wife sits in the cab of his pulled-over pickup; two young boys play in the bed. This is his actual family.
The evening light is muted, and the scene is calm. “Occasionally it will go through your mind, driving down the road, to look out for IEDs,” Sprouse explains. “When I went to drill last month, going to Winchester on 81, it happened…just a tire from a tractor-trailer recap up ahead. It doesn't happen every day…. But driving down the road, something's going to click in your mind.” 2
At this point, a viewer might begin to ask themselves what it must be like to see a truck tire and think it’s a booby trap; to dream of pink bunnies and know they're bombs. Former Sergeant Jose Adames can’t walk down a New York street without nearly blacking out every time a garbage truck rolls by. In Karady’s photograph, you can see him, crouched down with his hands over his head on a Brooklyn side street. He looks dumb, an effect of both Adames’ lack of training as an actor and the photo’s verisimilitude of combat's debilitating effects. War makes you dumb; that's how you survive. You duck and cover and try not to think.
Tim O’Brien wrote, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.”3 In this sense, there's almost no difference between a garbage truck at home hitting a pothole and forty mortar rounds shelling your convoy in Iraq. The brilliance of Karady’s method lies in her ability to tease out that elusive truth from her painstaking production of each photograph.
The images of “In Country” are highly stylized, detailed, and time-consuming―each one takes approximately one month to make. Locations must be scouted, scenes sketched, props acquired, sets constructed, scenes rehearsed. Obviously, Karady’s work acts as a form of theater. But it is precisely this thin line of artifice that keeps the photos from devolving into a form of kitsch. It’s impossible to re-create what actually happened in country. Karady demonstrates that such a quest would be beside the point anyway. Soldiers bring their wartime burdens home with them. They unwittingly share them with family and friends. By further exposing such traumas to a wider audience, Karady helps these veterans spread their pain and grief. They give that to us, and they are less burdened.
“In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan” is on view at SF Camerawork through August 7, 2010.