Former Sergeant Jason Lemieux, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is photographed reading from a stack of books he is currently studying as a political science student at Columbia University, New York. In the background is another US soldier, gun drawn, standing over the dead body of a shopkeeper; bags of an Iraqi version of Cheetos crisps line the wall and are scattered around the corpse. As it happens, Sergeant Lemieux and a fellow soldier were ordered by their superior officer to shoot to kill any man fitting the shopkeeper’s description. Following the shooting, and upon inspection of the person’s home, it was discovered that the shopkeeper was not an insurgent but supported US involvement in Iraq and was selling American-style snacks from his store.
The photograph is part of ‘In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan’ (2008–10), a body of work by Jennifer Karady presented in an exhibition curated by Chuck Mobley at SF Camerawork. Layered with history and memories, each of the artist’s photographs begins with extensive research and interviews with the veterans about their experiences in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The interviews, conducted by Karady, are constructed into narratives that are carefully staged in collaboration with the artist and each veteran with whom she works and who eventually become the subjects of her photographs. ‘In Country’ is presented with stunningly high production values and reconstructs true war stories by making many of the mediated ways in which the war has been generally consumed – for instance, the constructed narrative put out by the American government and mainstream media – to collapse upon themselves, leaving the symbolic remnants of these soldiers memories of war on display.
These photographs use a kind of storytelling about the private experience of wartime that has little to do with the overall thrust of the war itself. These are staged scenes and everyone involved in them is conscious of the simulacrum. The work breaks open not only the way we have been consuming the war, but how an individual constructs traumatic events as a survival mechanism. Some of the photographs are morbidly funny, strikingly dramatic or deeply psychological and all are coupled with the soldiers’ stories printed next to them. The text assigns the authority of meaning to the soldiers themselves and to no one else.
In a photograph taken on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara clutches the purple blankets of her bed inside a burnt-out building. There is a pile of cash on the bed and a reflection in a mirror of a large pink bunny in the background. Staff Sergeant Lara was transporting a large amount of cash to another base in Iraq when her Humvee was blown up. Upon returning to the US, she would apparently dream about chasing a bunny down the street, laughing about the absurdity of the chase. Only when the bunny got hit by a Humvee would she realize that the bunny was the bomb in her dream. In the text accompanying the photograph, Lara comments: ‘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 are really uncopable [sic]. There is no easy way to get around them.’
Ultimately, what makes these photographs so remarkable is that they are without the politicized view of the war put forward by media pundits, Democrats or Republicans. By making the veterans’ memories and experiences hold the weight of the story, these photographs cannot be easily co-opted for political leverage.