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.
In this current project, I am visiting the hometowns of soldiers and marines who were killed in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. I find information about them using the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) website, and with this information in hand, I visit their hometowns to understand what has been lost by their absence in the world. I’m not sure if I can reach this understanding visually, but I make pictures where they lived with the hope that we can begin to access the possibility of seeing their lives through what they saw. If these pictures can bring us closer to them, they do so by helping us imagine lives that ended too soon.
a snippet story
A Snippet Story attempts to complicate the use of the Internet as a memory site about the Iraq War by juxtaposing Google search engine results with my own wartime experience. 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 is called 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. I followed their movement. 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 banal engagement with the digitized images – a banality I also rhetoricize – would gesture to the banality of formulating memories through the Internet.