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Jennifer Karady

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Original author: 
Fred Ritchin

What do we want from our media revolution? Not just where is it bringing us—but where do we want to go? When the pixels settle, where do we think we should be in relationship to media—as producers, subjects, viewers? Since all media inevitably change us, how do we want to be changed?

There used to be a time when one could show people a photograph and the image would have the weight of evidence—the “camera never lies.” Certainly photography always lied, but as a quotation from appearances it was something viewers counted on to reveal certain truths. The photographer’s role was pivotal, but constricted: for decades the mechanics of the photographic process were generally considered a guarantee of credibility more reliable than the photographer’s own authorship.

But this is no longer the case. The excessive use of photographs to “brand” an image (whether of oneself online, of celebrities, of products, of major companies, or of governments), and to illustrate preconceptions rather than to uncover what is there (presidents are made to look presidential, and poor people are generally depicted as victimized), as well as the extraordinary malleability of the photograph due to software such as Photoshop, make photography more of a rhetorical strategy, like words, rather than an automatic proof of anything. Photographs must now persuade, often in concert with other media, rather than rely on a routine perception that they inevitably record the way things are.

The billion or so people with camera-equipped cellphones, meanwhile, make photography, like all social media, an easily distributed exchange of information and opinions with few effective filters to help determine which are the most relevant and accurate. The professional photojournalist and documentarian, now a tiny minority of those regularly photographing, often are unsure not only how to reach audiences through the media haze, but also how to get their viewers to engage with the often extraordinarily important situations they witness and chronicle.

This moment of enormous transition forces a rethinking of what photography can do, and what we want it to accomplish. For example, if a young person wanted to become a war photographer, we have hundreds of books showing how others have photographed war. But what if a young person wanted, instead, to become a photographer of peace? The genre, unfortunately, does not yet exist.

Perhaps, then, we might want to begin focusing less on the spectacle of war and more on those impacted by the consequences of war—as Monica Haller has done, along with many others. The all-type cover of her book, Riley and His Story, disputes any conventional reading: “This is not a book. This is an invitation, a container for unstable images, a model for further action…. Riley was a friend in college and later served as a nurse at Abu Ghraib prison. This is a container for Riley’s digital pictures and fleeting traumatic memories. Images he could not fully secure or expel and entrusted to me…. This is not a book. It is an object of deployment.”

The collaboration is intended to help Riley Sharbonno resurrect buried memories and deal with some of what he went through in a war that destabilized his life. There are pictures that he does not remember taking of events that he does not remember witnessing. Photographs, once rediscovered, sometimes assuage his guilt, providing a reason for what has happened. Some of the grand half-truths about war are diluted. But there is anger, too: “I want you to see what this war did to Riley.”

Similarly, Jennifer Karady revisits the enduring trauma of violent conflict in her collaborations with soldiers, working for about a month with each one to re-stage calamitous situations in civilian life that they had experienced in war. Finding a discarded tire on the side of the road in Virginia evokes memories of a possible IED, for instance, or looking out of a window in upstate New York while protected by sandbags recalls a vulnerability to attack—each of these pictures is made with family members participating. Karady views the procedure as potentially therapeutic for those involved, while helping to make the legacy of war somewhat more comprehensible to family and friends stateside. And unlike the imagery from so many war photographers, her pictures are not at all glamorous.

Some are also using their photographs to make sure that the violence is not forgotten by the broader society. In her project “Reframing History,” Susan Meiselas returned to Nicaragua in 2004 with nineteen murals created from her own photographs made during that country’s Sandinista Revolution twenty-five years earlier. She placed the murals at the sites where the imagery was originally made, collaborating with local communities in visualizing their own collective memories and also helping to better acquaint Nicaraguan youth with their own past. (Imagine then if it were possible to place photographs from Robert Frank’s landmark book, The Americans, made in the 1950s, on billboards around this country where the photos were made—given the critical nature of many of his photographs, it would be an extraordinary way to gauge societal change, or the lack of it.)

And some are trying to share the vagaries of war as they occur in a sort of real-time family album. Basetrack, created by Teru Kuwayama and Balazs Gardi, was an experimental social-media project that consisted of a small team of embedded photographers primarily using iPhones, which focused upon about a thousand Marines in the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, during their deployment to southern Afghanistan in 2010–11. They curated a news feed alongside their own efforts, employed Google Maps as an interface, wrote posts in addition to photographing, all with a view “to connect[ing] a broader public to the longest war in U.S. history,” intent on involving their audience, many of them family members, in the discussion. Trying to establish transparency, they created an editing tool for the military to censor photographs and texts that might put soldiers in danger, and asked the military to supply reasons for the censorship, which were then made visible when a viewer placed the cursor over the blacked-out section.

It was a relatively effective system, until in 2011, when the Facebook discussion became too difficult for the military to handle and the photographers were “uninvited” a month before the troops’ deployment ended. Apparently a good deal of the content that military officials found problematic was about relatively minor matters, such as parents complaining that their sons and daughters had to wear brown and not white socks on patrol. Now only the Facebook page is still active, with curated news and continuing audience discussions. One mother’s response to the project: “It has truly saved me from a devastating depression and uncontrollable anxiety after my son deployed. Having this common ground with other moms helped me so much and gives me encouragement each day.”

And then there are others who, rather than wait for the apocalypse, are attempting to see what can be done to help prevent it. In James Balog’s long-term photography project, “Extreme Ice Survey,” cameras are positioned in remote arctic and alpine areas, automatically photographing the melting of the ice to help more precisely calculate the impact of global warming, and to create a visual record of a planet in crisis. According to the EIS website: “currently, 28 cameras are deployed at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. These cameras record changes in the glaciers every half hour, year-round during daylight, yielding approximately 8,000 frames per camera per year.”

Or, if we want to make sure that the opinions of the subjects photographed are better understood, why not at times show them their image on the back of the digital camera, and ask what they think of the ways in which they are depicted, and record their voices?  An even more collaborative exchange of perceptions is that between Swedish photographer Kent Klich and Beth R., a former prostitute and drug addict living in Copenhagen whom he began photographing in the 1980s. In the 2007 book Picture Imperfect, his photographs, along with case histories and images from Beth’s family album as a child, are paired with an enclosed DVD of Beth’s daily life for which she herself was the primary filmmaker.

Finally, when making pictures, maybe they can serve another, more practical function. For French artist JR’s 2008–2009 project, “28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes,” photographs were not only used to document the faces of women living in modest dwellings in various countries, but in Kenya he began to make the oversize prints water-resistant so that when used as roof coverings the pictures themselves would help to protect the women’s fragile houses in the rainy season

Countless innovators, often working far from the spotlight, are today creating visual media that can be useful in a variety of ways. Rather than simply attempting to replicate previous photographic icons and strategies, these newer efforts are essential to revitalizing a medium that has lost much of its power to engage society on larger issues.

And then what is needed are people who can figure out effective and timely ways to curate the enormous numbers of images online from all sources—amateur and professional alike—so this imagery too can play a larger role. As badly as we need a reinvention of photography, we also will require an assertive metaphotography that contextualizes, authenticates, and makes sense of the riches within this highly visible but largely unexplored online archive.

Fred Ritchin is a professor at NYU and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights program at the Tisch School of the Arts. His newest book, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizenwas published by Aperture in 2013.

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The veterans project of Brooklyn-based photographer Jennifer Karady uses the narrative, set-up shots of art photography to address real people and events more typically treated by photojournalists. In 2004 she began reading about the profound effects of combat stress and eventually decided she wanted to make photos with veterans to stage their war stories. When she discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder was being successfully treated with virtual reality technology, with veterans re-enacting their “trigger” moments, she knew she had hit on a way to tell the veteran’s narratives.

Ms. Karady says: “I realized that making a photograph about one’s experience could potentially offer relief to veterans suffering from psychological trauma and that perhaps I could utilize my artistic practice to help people. The idea evolved as I realized that I needed to create a safe space in which veterans could re-enact their moment from war. Though this project is conceptually inspired by a therapeutic model, I am extremely aware that I am not a therapist, and I do not claim that the process is clinically therapeutic. However, the process can be helpful for the veteran in transforming an experience that may have had a negative effect on his or her life into a positive experience. Also, I’ve found that the act of telling one’s story publicly can be deeply empowering and validating.”

Ms. Karady’s photos are the culmination of months of interviews, preparation and planning. Her exhibition, “In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan,” will be at the CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. through Aug. 27. The show is already hanging but officially opens July 15 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The text that follows is transcribed and edited from interviews conducted by Ms. Karady.

Former Specialist Shelby Webster, 24th Transportation Company, 541st Maintenance Battalion, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with children, Riley, Dillin and Sidnie, brother Delshay, and uncle Derek; Omaha Nation Reservation, NE, October 2010

I was 20 years old when I joined the Army. I was a single mom and I had two babies that I left – a two- year-old and a three-year-old. When I found out that I was deploying, I remember crying on the phone to my dad, “I don’t want to go.” I didn’t join just to join. I joined the military thinking I would give my kids a better life.

I drove a PLS (palletized load system truck). We transported all sorts of supplies from Kuwait into Iraq when there was nothing there. Whatever they needed, we hauled. The funny thing about it is that we weren’t armored. We only had flak vests and our little M16s.
When we convoyed into Iraq for the first time, it was probably two o’clock in the morning. I remember being so tired and seeing explosions and thinking, “Wow, this is like the movies. This isn’t happening.” Then we started getting attacked. We had a big convoy of about 20 trucks. We stopped and my squad leader, Sergeant Jackson, jumped out and said, “Be ready, lock and load!” At that point I thought, “How am I going to shoot and drive?” I remember shaking and almost freezing up. And my TC (passenger and vehicle commander), Gabe, said, “It’s OK, Web. It’s OK. I’ve been through this already.” He was trying to reassure me because I was terrified. They had us line up all the trucks in four rows. Sergeant Jackson told us to get out of our trucks just in case. So we were in the sand, lying in the prone position just waiting. Then we hear gunfire and I remember thinking, “What am I going to do, I’m a girl.” I lay there crying to myself, “God, please, I don’t want to die. I want to go home to my kids.” I was so scared. It was so hard.

I’m Native American and I believe in my culture. I believe in my Omaha ways. I said a little prayer to myself asking God to protect me and to watch over my babies if something were to happen to me. This feeling came over me and, I don’t know if it was my subconscious or what, but I heard a voice that said, “It’s going to be alright.” I recognized that voice as my Grandpa Danny’s voice. I was 10 when he passed, but I remember him – he was a good grandpa and always protective. In this moment I also smelled cedar and we pray with cedar. When I smelled it, I took a deep breath and I smelled and smelled. I thought, “What the heck?” I looked around and asked Gabe, “Do you smell that?” He said, “No, I don’t smell nothing.” I could still see and hear tracer rounds and explosions and could feel the ground shake. But a feeling of calmness had come over me and I thought, “I can do this.” When I called home and told my Dad that I smelled cedar, he cried. He said, “Well, we’ve been praying for you. We’ve been having meetings for you.”

My Dad had my kids while I was gone. It seemed like during those two years I saw my kids probably one or two times. My kids are ten and eleven years old now and I had another baby after I got back. My youngest is now five years old and totally different compared to my older kids who have separation anxiety – they always have to know where I am. My youngest is more independent; she’s her own kind of person. But the older two are always looking for me, asking, “Where’s Mom?” And I say, “I’m right here.”

Shelby Webster works as a probation officer at the Omaha Tribal Court.

Former Satellite Communications Specialist Aaron Grehan, 11th Signal Brigade, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with girlfriend, Neta, and mother, Judy; Peterborough, NH, May 2007

Four months into my tour of Iraq I got kidney stones because of all the calcium in the bottled water. I was airlifted to a place called LSA Dogwood, which is just outside Baghdad in the middle of the desert. It’s a pretty good-sized tent hospital. Now, the thing with this place is that there are no trees; there’s nothing out there. It was probably 120 degrees during the day—a good bit hotter than it was in downtown Baghdad. The tent next to mine housed all the burn victims, both U.S. troops and Iraqis. It was miserable. There were nothing but screams and moans coming from that tent.

I had an IV because they wanted me to pass the kidney stones, so every two hours I had to get up and go to the bathroom. I had to walk through the tent with all of the burn victims. There’s guys over there whose legs would be so blackened that it didn’t look like a leg, and there were little kids that you couldn’t even recognize as a human being. It was horrible. At that point I really started looking at the war differently. I saw how it affected people—the inhumane consequences. They couldn’t have stuck me next to a worse tent to have to walk through every day.

About six days into my hospital stay, there was a loud explosion. And then another one, and another one. Soon we’re all getting under our cots as if that’s going to protect us from some 3,000-pound hunk of metal coming in and exploding. The explosions are getting more frequent and more intense. You could hear commotion from all the tents; everybody’s yelling and screaming, commands are being shouted, confusion. People don’t know which command was coming from where. Sometimes the military can be so inefficient like that. Somebody came in and said, “We gotta get out of here!” Then someone else came in and said, “No, stay put!” Then another person came in and said, ”We’re getting transported out of here. Everyone get outside so we can get into vehicles!”

We headed outside and everybody’s out there in their hospital gowns, their asses are hanging out in the wind. Half of us had our own IV bags, just holding them up, and mine kept backing up so I could see this stream of blood going in. It sucked because it hurt. We’re outside and it’s 120 degrees and we look over and there’s this cloud of smoke a quarter of a mile away. Everyone is wondering what is going on, and finally word circulates that there’s an ammo dump over there. Real smart of the U.S. Army to store all of these munitions and explosives so close to a hospital. They had millions of pounds of IEDs, explosives, etc. It had gotten so hot out there that one of them exploded and it set everything else off, at this point everything from grenades to rockets, and the rockets had started going off, zipping around randomly. It was pretty insane.

We got word that there were no vehicles. There were probably over a thousand of us just sitting outside not knowing what to do. Then we were told to start walking in the opposite direction of the cloud of smoke. There was this mass exodus of people in hospital gowns holding their own IV bags walking through the desert. We walked almost two miles over open desert before they sent vehicles to pick us up.

Aaron Grehan is a psychedelic trance DJ and organizes electronic dance events in and around New England.

Former Staff Sergeant Andrew Davis, 75th Ranger Regiment, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, with wife, Jodie, and Iraq war veterans and friends Tom and Andy; Saratoga Springs, NY, October 2009

At the beginning of the war, my mortar section and a company of rangers were sent to Haditha. There is a hydroelectric dam about nine kilometers long on the Euphrates River that was rumored to be laced with explosives. If it blew, it would flood the Euphrates floodplain, keeping us out of Baghdad. It was supposed to be a two-hour mission, and we ended up in a thirteen-day firefight.

It was about day five when Jeremy, one of my mortar gun-leaders, was hit. It was the middle of the day and hot as hell. There was a wall on the front of the top of the dam and a wall in the back. We were on the backside, and we started making shelters to protect us from the harsh sun. We placed our rain ponchos on the wall of the dam, secured them with rocks and stretched them to the ground, creating a little tent. I told my soldiers constantly: “Don’t fucking stand up, you’re a silhouette, you’re on top of this dam, they can see everything you’re doing, right?” But since the artillery hadn’t hit anywhere close to us in a few days no one thought that anything was going to happen.

Jeremy and I were literally sharing a poncho, and one of the rocks holding it in place fell down. Jeremy stood up to fix it, we heard a whistle, and he was laid out. His eye was just kind of dangling and it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I quickly called for the medic. In the meantime we stopped the bleeding as much as we could, put his eye in his head, and covered his head. The medic came down, and I started gathering my men to move once the medic took over. The last thing I remember was looking at Jeremy and seeing the medic, and he went like that [makes gesture of sliding hand across throat], and I just thought, “Holy f***, all these guys were best friends.” I wasn’t even worried about me anymore.

After that, I told my soldiers to get down to the water and clean the blood off their clothes. They had their buddy’s blood on them, and we weren’t getting new clothes anytime soon. You can’t be wandering around with your friend’s blood because it ruins morale. We started joking about it, making eyesight jokes, which sounds morbid to your average person, but it’s the only way to get through it. Looking back, things like that were just sick, but everyone laughed at the time. It gave new meaning to the fight; everyone got more careful. I always think about all of us sitting in a circle with our helmets and Kevlar on, and it was hot and there was blood everywhere, and just making jokes. It was so primitive and so sick but it was what helped get everybody back to normal.

I was an avid backpacker and camper before I went into the military. I was an Eagle Scout, I was always camping, and I won’t set foot under a tent now. When I think about it, I honestly don’t know if what happened on that dam is the reason, but I won’t anymore. My wife has probably asked me a hundred times to go camping. I don’t even like sleeping away from my base—I mean, my house.

While Andy Davis’ friend and colleague Jeremy survived his injuries, he is currently blind in both eyes and sustained some brain damage. Andy ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2006 and narrowly lost the election. He is the cofounder of a nonprofit that assists student veterans on campus based at the University of Minnesota. Andy presently works for the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs in Albany, NY.

Former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara, C Detachment, 38th Personnel Services Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom; Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA, January 2010

We were in a convoy between my camp at Kirkush Military Training Base and Camp Anaconda in Balad, which is where everything happens—that’s the hub. At the time I was the FOO (field ordering officer) and I was responsible for all of the money that came in and out of the installation. I would convoy very frequently in order to transport money—like $100,000 in cash—under my vest.

I was in a Humvee, but our unit isn’t a tactical unit, so we didn’t have armored Humvees. What we had were Kevlar plates that lined the seats but not the vehicle. They were designed to keep you from dying but not designed to protect you. When the bomb went off, it actually shot pieces of the engine up. I was in the passenger seat. As soon as the vehicle exploded, my first thoughts were about the safety of the money. Then there was just all this blood, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. My ears were ringing from this huge concussion blast. I couldn’t hear, and my vision was blurred. And so many things were happening. I couldn’t make out the sounds around me—I was disoriented. I was looking…the windows were shattered and my arms were cut, I was bleeding, and I just couldn’t figure out where all of the blood was coming from. It seemed like forever but it probably took place in the blink of an eye.

There are many things that connect me back to that moment. It’s usually only when I can’t sleep or when I am sleeping. I had a really weird dream that I was chasing a pink rabbit. I was trying to catch the damn pink rabbit and it was huge. I think it’s funny—I’m laughing in the dream, going, “I can’t believe this pink bunny!” And then, the pink bunny runs into the street, and 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. So sometimes my dreams aren’t necessarily reliving the experience. They’re some kind of distortion, how I find ways to cope with the things that really can’t be coped with. There’s really no easy way to get around them.

Starlyn Lara currently works as a human resources/accounts payable assistant at Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit veterans organization that provides numerous services for veterans in need, and as a part-time emergency medical technician.

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