I went to Beirut this summer to begin my Arabic language journey. In a sense, my journey began more than a decade ago – though I didn’t know it then – when I was first deposited in an Arab speaking country with a weapon, Kevlar and body armor. This recent trip to Beirut marked my first time in the Middle East since then. Although I was there to learn Arabic, I brought my camera along, an optical dulcimer which pulls me to objects like a divining rod to water: a pink towel that seemed to follow me around East Beirut; a blue rain barrel; a shrine with votive candles still flickering; a happy palm leaf jutting from a pale green wall, stubbornly and defiantly growing where it wants; and a palm tree, a stem really, whose singular joy was to splash green on a brown-gray wall. I wonder about that palm tree as much as I wonder about why I stopped there to make a picture. Maybe it was those proud green leaves beginning their life’s journey. Maybe it was the whisper of my former soldier self saying, “It’s okay, you have time, make a picture.” Or maybe it was a little bit of both.
rock solid memory
Some war memorials have become a part of our iconographic landscape, and it seems to me these structures reify a limiting narrative about war. With this in mind, I began visiting war memorials to see how people behaved at those sites. This gallery represents what I saw. If the pictures come to life, it is where the public's response to the memorial is either aligned with or opposed to the intended meaning of the memorial. And of course that meaning is always colored by our collective perception.
Dear Madison is my attempt to throw light on a more complex war experience as opposed to the limited one portrayed in our patriotic narrative. In this project, which I approach ethnographically, I try to arrive at a different truth through the stories of some veterans (myself included) of our current wars. The idea of defending freedom and an American way of life are abstractions; the lived experience of people affected by political violence is concrete. It is the space between these two poles – the envisaged soldier life and the lived experience – that I explore in this documentary project.
I was asked by the Dean of Student Affairs to photograph the opening of UNC's Veterans Center in September 2017. After accepting the commission, I decided to visit the location to learn more about the space before making pictures on opening day. Once there, I found people hard at work finishing the landscaping, plumbing and heating system. It was then I realized the story of the center was as much about the workers making the space possible as it was about Carolina's veteran population. So, I began visiting there daily to witness the center come to life.
looking for chicken
In November 2004, New York Times photographer Ashley Gilberston made a picture of Demarkus Brown, then a twenty-one-year-old United States Marine with the 8th Regimental Combat Team in Fallujah, Iraq. The photograph was later published in Gilberston’s monograph about the Iraq War, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In this image, Brown is lying on a gurney, pretending to be a casualty as his unit rehearsed evacuation procedures in preparation for their assault in Fallujah. He would be killed three days later. Newspaper accounts of his death describe an affable young man who liked to wrestle. His coach nicknamed him chicken because of the way he flopped around on the mat during matches. Details like this – known only by a small group of people – bring another perspective about him into relief, as someone other than the camouflaged Marine that enters our visual field in images like Gilberstson’s. I began to wonder about Demarkus Brown. What was he like? Why did he decide to join the United States Marines soon after graduating from high school? Perhaps most important (and evasive), what has been lost by his absence in the world? I don’t know how to answer this question visually, but to begin to understand Demarkus Brown, I visited both his hometown in Martinsville, Virginia and where he trained for war at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I made pictures at both of those places, thinking we could begin to access the possibility of seeing his life through what he saw. If these pictures can bring us closer to him, they do so by helping us imagine a life that ended too soon.
a snippet story
The zine A Snippet Story attempts to complicate the utility of the Internet as a memory site about the Iraq War by juxtaposing Google search engine results about the war with my own wartime experience. The idea is to activate a personal, perhaps vernacular register of knowledge about the war through the mnemonic agency of conglomerate images made available in the public domain. To find these images, I typed “Iraq War pictures” into a Google search engine from my computer for seventeen days to see what images would appear and whether or not they would change. A Google search generates what they call a featured snippet comprising of the top search results, in this case twelve pictures linked in some way to the Iraq War. I also searched (summoned, as I say in the zine) the same information from other computers to confirm the featured snippet appearing on my computer was not unique. The same twelve images did appear in the other featured snippets. With this as a data set of sorts, I began to think of the images as material artifacts moving in and through the bounded space of the snippet block. I followed their movement within the snippet. I tracked the images to their webpages to gain a sense of how they were contextualized there, eventually introducing my voice into the zine through a caption from one of those sites. It is my hope that this almost banal engagement with the digitized materiality of the images – a banality I also rhetoricize – would gesture to the banality of formulating memories through these images.