From India’s Sufi Muslim Urs Festival and the first intercontinental flight of the Solar Impulse to a suicide bombing of military soldiers in Sana’a and the beginning of Egypt’s presidential election, TIME’s photo department presents the best images of the week.
When the current incarnation of LightBox launched a year ago today, one of our very first posts featured the work of Eugene Richards, an American photographer who had released a book documenting the impact of the Iraq War on soldiers and their families. It’s been years since the book, War is Personal, hit shelves in September 2010, and even longer since Richards completed the project. In honor of that anniversary, LightBox caught up with Richards to discuss the way that photographs can follow a photographer.With War is Personal, Richards has found that it’s not just the images that draw him back in. “When you do a project like this, people keep occasionally popping back into your life,” he says.
Some of the subjects of the book have fallen out of touch with the photographer, while others he leaves alone, for now at least, feeling that it would be an intrusion to contact them before they want to be contacted. Still, others are still very much involved in the afterlife of the project. Richards knows that one combat medic featured in the project, suicidal at the time, has started law school and is doing well. Another of the subjects, already confined to a wheelchair, has seen his health deteriorate further in the months that have passed. And in one situation, Richards’ involvement with his subjects has gone past keeping tabs. Carlos Arredondo, featured in War is Personal as the father of a deceased soldier and as an antiwar activist, recently lost another son, Brian, to suicide. Because the Arredondo family was in financial trouble, and because the self-published War is Personal sold better than Richards had expected, the photographer and his team—along with the Nation Institute, which had given Richards a fellowship to work on the project—helped defray the cost of Brian’s funeral. The photographs in the gallery above were taken in the days around that event.
“The grief really took over Brian,” Arredondo told Richards. “But it’s not only those people who kill themselves who are suffering, but los familios.”
Richards, who already began two new projects in the past year, says he tries not to revisit stories after he finishes them. “I think all journalists try not to,” he says, “but then they come back to you, again and again and again.”
On one level, they come back as people, like the Arredondo family. On another, the stories come back as a consequence of the photographer’s immersion in the subject. Following an idea for long enough to create a large project about it means that the facts and emotions of its world become so familiar that, Richards says, they start to seep into every aspect of life. Something only tangentially related to a photograph taken a year or two years or twenty years ago can provoke the old perspective. “Suddenly you’re back to where you were at a different time,” says Richards.
Richards hasn’t taken any other additional photographs of the families from War is Personal, but he says he will probably return to the subject of war’s impact. Richards says he can’t turn away from people who are open to his journalistic curiosity and his camera’s presence. After all, there is no shortage of reasons to continue to snap away, no shortage of families affected by the country’s evolving military situation.
“This is the next round of response now that the declaration of war here is over, and perhaps people will come back from Afghanistan,” he predicts. “Concerns are going to grow and grow.”
Eugene Richards is an award-winning American photographer. See more of his work here.
Watch LightBox’s video about War is Personal here.
It’s difficult to make a new kind of portrait of a soldier in an age when they have been depicted in such iconic manner in the media. But in her new book Soldier/Many Wars (Decode, 2011), artist Suzanne Opton does so by staging slight performances in front of her 4×5 camera. Opton asks soldiers returning from war to pose with their head lying sideways, and in that simple gesture, much is revealed. “We are inured to pictures of war,” she says. “This may have more power than a documentary picture. It makes you think. It’s a conceptual photo based on a documentary situation and that’s what I’m interested in.” When she began photographing soldiers back in 2006, around the same time her son would have been of draft age if the draft were still mandatory. “I’d see these young guys with all this gear representing the United States, and you really have no idea who they are,” Opton says. “I wanted to strip all that away and look at them like I would look at my own son.”
Getting to the subjects was not easy. After calling bases around the country a public affairs officer from Fort Drum finally called her back and asked if the project would have political undertones, and Opton said no. “Because the country at the time was so polarized, I wanted it to be about people. It’s about looking at these guys and wondering what they went through. How would they continue with their lives, with something that’s never going to go away—how do you manage your life around that? It’s that process that’s interesting to me and it’s the people. It just makes it so narrow to call it an anti-war project and so dismissible.” After Opton explained that it was an art project, they eventually gave her an appointment, and on three visits, she photographed almost 100 soldiers for the series. “They brought in one person after another, and they were all amazing looking,” she says.
Of her process Opton says, “I think of this a little bit as performance art. They have to keep their heads down and they have to stay in that uncomfortable position while I adjust the camera.” In that time their minds can wander and we see soldiers in a rage of expressions from detached to awkward, to sensual, all enhanced by the light and unique background colors she chooses. “I wanted to make them kind of theatrical because I think there’s a certain kind of glamour to the military and the way it presents and sells itself,” Opton says. “These pictures wouldn’t mean anything if they were just the man on the street. The only way we know they are soldiers is the haircut. Studio pictures are abstracted from life, extracted from a sense of place so the color and light was meant to imply a sense of place. If they were fallen where would they be?”
Opton acknowledges that the photos are difficult to view, particularly for those who have children in the military. In fact, she’s the first to admit that she wouldn’t want her own son photographed that way if he were in the military, but she made the pictures to create a dialogue. Opton has even presented them on billboards around the country in conjunction with exhibitions, playing off a space traditionally reserved for fashion ads or movie posters. “The billboards were interesting because they were ambiguous and that’s what we wanted,” she explained.
Opton first exhibited the images in 2006 at a time when showing the coffins of dead soldiers returning home was banned. Today, there still exists a lot of controversy around publishing photographs of the fallen, and Opton says some people connected to the military were upset she’d shown the soldiers in this vulnerable way as opposed to looking strong or heroic. ”Of course that’s what you want them to be,” Opton says. “But they are also seen from a mother’s point of view or a brother or sister’s point of view…so it’s from that very personal point of view that I wanted to show them.”
America’s troops too often come home from war only to remain a step apart from the rest of the nation. The chasm between the military and civilian populations has never been greater. It’s simple math: Less than one percent of Americans now serve in the military, compared with 12 percent during World War II. So after a decade of unrelenting war, with some soldiers and Marines serving four or more combat tours, many Americans still don’t know a single soldier, sailor or airman.
Veterans will tell you that one of the most jarring experiences of their service is the sudden immersion back into a society seemingly unaware that there are any wars going on at all. While they fought, their country went about its business. So they must find their own ways to acknowledge their experiences. A common ritual is the commemorative tattoo. Troops honor fallen buddies, venerate their units, reiterate war mottos, engrave themselves with religious prose, or dream up art that reflects experiences they might not talk about.
Since 1992, Capitol Tattoo has been inking the bodies of returning soldiers in a storefront shop on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the massive Army hospital that is in the process of closing. “They are our family,” says owner Al Herman, of the soldiers who come in for artwork, or just to hang out.
On one day this summer, Herman opened his door to photographer Peter Hapak. The veteran clients rolled up their sleeves, stripped off their shirts, and revealed their scars, hoping that the resulting images would help bridge the chasm of understanding.
MORE: Read Mark Benjamin’s magazine story, “The Art of War,” from this week’s issue of TIME [available to subscribers here].