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Photographer captures how veterans experience the collision of war and the civilian world

November 11, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Some of the difficulties that veterans face when they return to civilian life often goes unseen by most Americans. Detroit Public Television reports on photographer Jennifer Karady’s attempt to capture the memories and experiences of veterans.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a different Veterans Day story.

Photographer Jennifer Karady hopes her work will illuminate some of the difficulties that veterans face when they return to the civilian world.

This self-narrated report was produced by Detroit Public Television.

JENNIFER KARADY: “Soldiers’ Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan” is a project that I have been working on for the last eight years.

I have been traveling around the country working with American veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to make these staged narrative photographs.

The making of each photograph involves the collaboration between myself and the veteran. We begin with a series of interviews. And 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.

SPC. ANDREW FLOYD (RET.), U.S. Army: I met Jennifer through a listserv that the university runs to pass on information to student veterans. After meeting with her and discussing the project, it sounded like something that I wanted to be involved with.

JENNIFER KARADY:  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.

And that could take place in the form of a flashback, a memory, an instinct, an image.

I made this picture with Shelby Webster on the Omaha Nation reservation in Nebraska. She was a single mother who left her kids to deploy to Iraq. Shelby was a truck driver. And on her first convoy, the convoy got attacked. I mean, she was terrified. She was hearing explosions. The ground was shaking. It was really her first moment of real war.

And she just kept thinking about her kids. So, she heard a voice, and the voice said to her, “Well, you’re going to be all right.”  And she recognized that voice as her deceased grandfather’s voice. And then she also smelled this incredible smell of cedar burning. And the Omaha people, when they pray, they burn cedar. And the next time she called home to her dad, she said, “Dad, I smelled cedar.”

And he said: “Well, we just had this big prayer meeting specifically for you. That must be what you smelled.”

The photographs are accompanied with texts or sound stories, and, basically, those consist of the veterans telling the story in their own words.

SPC. ANDREW FLOYD: My photo deals a lot with the experiences of being in Iraq, of seeing my friends killed.

It shook up my sense of self, because I felt that I owed it to those I serve with to remain engaged, and, at the same time, doing so conflicted with the emotions that I was feeling. And so, when I came back, there was a distance between some of those, you know, who I considered friends, where we perhaps were each grieving in our own ways.

You know, over time and especially working through this project, I have had the opportunity to really think about those things, reconnect with some of the people that I served with, talk with them about the experiences that we had.

JENNIFER KARADY:  One of the questions that I ask veterans during the whole process is, what will make you feel safe to work with this moment or memory?  And so, whatever they tell me, I incorporate into the picture.

So, early on, a veteran told me, like, well, my family is what makes me feel safe and grounded in the present. Then it also becomes a way for them to start talking about something that might be really difficult to talk about with, you know, their family and friends.

SPC. ANDREW FLOYD: I think there are a lot of themes in Jennifer’s work. I think it just speaks to the humanity of service members, that we are ordinary individuals put in extraordinary circumstances.

And out of devotion for our country and a sense to serve, we have taken on a certain burden. And that’s not to say that we’re owed anything or that we expect any special treatment, but that we just want to be viewed like ordinary people who love their country and are proud to have had the opportunity to serve.

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