War is Surreal

The more that war or combat is portrayed in various media the less I feel like I will ever really be able to understand what the experience is like. If that is true, is it possible to truly prepare our service men and women for what they will face? They may be prepared with the best physical and technical training, but how can we prepare them psychologically for something that can’t really be simulated? And, if we can’t prepare them psychologically, how will we deal with the inevitable post traumatic stress some may encounter on their return home. These are all questions that came up as I view two well-paired bodies of work currently hanging at SFCamerawork dealing with different aspects of the prosecution of war.

Christopher Sims, Theater of War
Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana from Theater of War
© Christopher Sims

The first, Theater of War by 2010 Baum Award Winner Christopher Sims, is a combination of portraiture and environmental images that shows us an aspect of soldiers preparation before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Sims shows us a glimpse of the fake villages the military creates and populates with “actors” to provide a stage upon which various scenarios are acted out. Despite the fact that, as Sims’ artist statement sates, “The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature,” the absurdity of a woman sitting in a folding chair spinning wool next to a RPG only makes me think there is no way to properly prepare soldiers for what they will encounter. It also highlights the near impossible task regular armed forces face when they’re up against irregular forces, especially in a populated area. Even if you take the military aspect out of it the images are representation of a simulation. They are one person’s edited view of an interpretation of a foreign place and people which calls into question, more so than usual, the veracity of photography.

Jennifer Karady, Soldiers'  Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
Captain Elizabeth A. Condon, New York Army National Guard, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with daughter, Kate, and mother, Elizabeth, Troy, NY, June 2008 from Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
© Jennifer Karady

In contrast to the careful preparation prior to deployment, the second body of work shows us the aftermath of deployment, the psychological damage, and the sometimes faulty support system that soldiers face on their return to the US. Jennifer Karady‘s Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan show soldiers reenacting  traumatic situations from their deployment, but in their home setting, often with friends or family members in the scene as well. Though perhaps not as intricately staged as Gregory Crewdson’s work, I feel that Karady’s work is more immediate. By that I mean that though both artists construct staged narratives replete with psychological drama, I think of Crewdson’s work as being more removed and clinical, lacking the emotional weight of Karady’s work. A lot of that may have to do with being able to read the soldiers’ recounted descriptions of what they were feeling or the situations they were reenacting. Yet even before I read the accounts, I looked at the images and wanted to learn more about the people pictured. Not something I often feel with Crewdson’s work.

Gregory Crewdson, Twilight
from Twilight
© Gregory Crewdson

All in all, a really smart paring of two thought provoking bodies of work. Both are up through the first week in August, so if you’re in San Francisco this summer, check out the show.

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