We’ve heard about how difficult the transition from the military to the civilian world has been for many post-9/11 veterans. But sometimes statistics and unemployment percentages don’t convey the grave situation to others the way that a work of art can.
For the past eight years, Brooklyn-based photographer Jennifer Karady has been traveling throughout the United States to capture arresting images of soldiers returned from combat. She spends time with each veteran to learn his or her story and then composes a scene that conveys their emotions. As Karady’s website notes, “she works with real people to dramatize their stories through both literal depiction and metaphorical and allegorical means.”
When Karady spent time with former Marine Corps Sergeant Jose Adames, for example, she learned that he was struck by a mortar when he was in a convoy — resulting in shrapnel wounds, plus 17 fellow Marines in his unit also sustaining injury. When he returned home to Brooklyn, Adames found he was terrified of garbage trucks because they sound similar to exploding mortars. Karady depicted Adames in his uniform on the streets of Brooklyn, crouched and covering his ears as a garbage truck rumbles along behind him.
Karady spoke about her project, “Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan,” with the PBS NewsHour. She says that she interviews the veterans extensively before photographing them: “through those interviews, we are looking identify a moment from war that’s come home with the person into the civilian world. So we talk about both that memory of war and then also the way that memory manifests itself in the present.”
She continues, “In each photograph, the veteran is in uniform and we’re restaging this memory from war, but that moment is recontextualized in the civilian world. So you get this sense of a collision or collapse between these two worlds, and trying to represent something that’s invisible, something that’s unconscious, something that’s emotional, so what it feels like for the veteran to come home and sometimes experience two different realities at once.”
Karady travelled to the Omaha Nation reservation in Nebraska to photograph Shelby Webster, a single mother who left her kids to serve in Iraq. Her first convoy was attacked, which caused her to worrying about her kids. But she heard her deceased grandfather say, “Well, you’re going to be all right,” and she smelled burning cedar. She later learned that the Omaha people held a prayer meeting for her at which they burned cedar. In the photograph, Webster is on the ground, pointing her gun, while her children cling to her and her brother performs a cedar ceremony in the background.
In the coming years, Karady plans to publish photos from her project in a book and exhibit the portraits in galleries, accompanied with text or recordings of the soldiers telling their own stories.
Through Karady’s images, we can understand a little better the haunting memories that run through veterans’ minds when they return home.