Our view of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been shaped by the images recorded by not only photojournalists but also by enlisted combat photographers. The Reform Gallery in Los Angeles is exhibiting a collection of war photos taken by U.S. military photographers in Iraq and Afghanistan (from May 24 through July 5). All proceeds from "Eye of the Storm: War Through the Lens of American Combat Photographers" will be donated to soldiers wounded in the two conflicts. Curator Dane Jensen discussed the show with NEWSWEEK's Jenny Hontz.
NEWSWEEK: Whose idea was it to exhibit war photos from military combat photographers?
Dane Jensen: It was my idea. I initially conceived of a show with photos taken by average soldiers. But then I realized the level of talent from military photographers was really quite amazing. They are all professional, enlisted combat photographers.
Why did you decide to do this exhibit?
I really wanted to do something to help the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. In the news they talk about the death toll, but no one is talking about the injuries. It's really a war of injuries, and you don't hear as much about them after they come back to the States. I tried to find a way to help. All of the proceeds will go to the Wounded Warrior Project.
How did you choose the photos?
I had an idea stylistically, and I basically started with the best in the military. It took a lot of vetting. I found ones that fit our needs aesthetically. This is a fine arts show with 41 images. [They're] all layered. I was looking for anomalies, ones that said something about this war and defined elements of it. But I was looking for things we do not see coming out of the media.
Incredible pollution and child labor. There's a photo of a family building a home in a landfill. The Iraqi refuges are not something you hear a lot about. The soldiers on the ground see a lot of that. This is their viewpoint. It's quite shocking to a lot of people.
Why does the military hire combat photographers?
Number one, to document history. And they have an entire media relations department that sends images to the public. A lot of them end up in magazines and newspapers. They also use them for their own promotional material, in advertisements, in-house pamphlets, recruiting material. In World War II a lot of the photos of Omaha Beach and some of the iconic images of the war came from military photographers.
Very few of the photos are of combat missions, and there's not much blood and gore. Are you worried that photos from the military might sanitize or, given the beauty of the images, glamorize the war?
I'm not concerned about glamorizing war. They're not going to release images of dead American soldiers. But any independent photographer or embedded journalist has told that story. It is alluded to in these photos. That's more interesting than showing gruesome images. Everyone knows it's gruesome, but you can show it in an artful way. They're not exactly spelling it out for you. There's one photograph of three soldiers in a police station talking about their friend who died. They're not looking at each other, because they don't want to see the fear in each other's eyes. You can see the stress and fatigue, but you have to read the back story. There's a certain value to showing the brutality of war, but there's another way to tell it.
A lot of the images capture prosaic moments.
I don't think [combat] is the only thing going on. There are humanitarian missions. They're helping train Iraqi forces. Whether it's working or not history will judge. The soldiers tell me they are there to help Iraqis build a safer place, a better place. The media is focused on specific events. This is a more day-to-day representation. Who could have imagined a baseball game going on in Iraq? That's a very American photograph. These are small moments you do not typically see.
Those are stories that political and military leaders often say they want told. Were you concerned you might be serving as their mouthpiece?
I don't feel that way at all. I specifically designed the exhibit to be apolitical. The military chooses which images are released to the public. There is some influence there. But I do not feel the exhibit is at all tainted. I could have easily done an exhibit of silhouetted soldiers in the desert against the sunset. I didn't choose to do that exhibit. I took a long time in researching this. I interviewed the photographers at length to get the whole story.
Did anything from your interviews surprise you?
It was a bit enlightening. As a nonmilitary person, I would think, if I went over there, I would never want to go back. For them it's the opposite. They want to go back. This is their time to capture history. They know they will get great pictures there. It's the epicenter of what's happening in the world. They know these are images that will live well beyond their years.
Your exhibit features a couple of female combat photographers. Is that unique to this war?
That is something that really defines this war. Only two female photographers have won the military-photographer-of-the-year award. Stacy Pearsall won it twice. Cherie Thurlby is also in this exhibition. She took an image of [Saddam Hussein's] bombed-out palace. She is part of the first all-female combat photography team, a two-person team with a videographer. They were there in the very early days of the war. With the bombed-out palace, she had to convince the Special Forces to let them in.
She also took the photograph of young Afghan girls pleading for help in the U.S. Army women's medic tent.
She had specifically gone to the women's tent. You can see a female perspective, a certain connection she had with the subjects. It's perhaps not a viewpoint we would have seen had a female photographer not been there.
Were any of the photographers injured in the war?
Stacy Pearsall was injured twice, in two different IED attacks. Both times she was hit in the neck. She's fine.
Will the exhibit travel to cities other than Los Angeles?
I've envisioned it showing in New York, maybe Miami and Chicago. I'd like it to travel. It would be interesting for it to show in Europe. Different parts of the country will view it differently. I think, for example, if I show it in San Diego, which has a heavy military presence, it will be a distinctly different crowd than a show in Miami for a fine arts crowd. It will strike different chords with different people.
Do you have any personal connection to the military?
I don't have any family in the military. I'm not involved in the military. This is not about the military. I thought, this is a story, and how am I going to approximate what war is like? It's a story best told by soldiers. It's told by them, and it's for them. It's such a distinct and emotional event. I'm more a vessel or a conduit.
Aside form raising money for wounded soldiers, what do you hope to accomplish with this exhibit?
Two things: within the political scene today, Iraq is slipping in importance. I hope people will have a heightened awareness of what's going on in Iraq and will be moved to donate to people who are helping us and are willing to put everything on the line. These people should not be forgotten. We can also recognize the great work of these photographers.