Veterans' portraits bring war's consequences into sharp focus

Jennifer Karady brings consequences of war to the home front in her staged portraits of veterans

War isn't what it used to be.

Nor are war stories.

Since 2006, Jennifer Karady has been making elaborately staged portraits of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither a journalist nor a documentary photographer, the Brooklyn-based artist invites us to think differently about war by using photography to bring some of its consequences — and otherwise invisible realities — into sharp focus.

In the 20th century, photography and later television brought war home — making U.S. viewers acutely aware of the flesh-and-blood consequences of battles, bombings and firefights. For photographers and camera operators, that meant being on the frontline, under fire and in the thick of things.

Karady stays close to home but does something similar. Her work begins with veterans who have brought the war home — in memories, flashbacks, dreams and nightmares — after the physical violence has subsided yet before the psychological turmoil has settled.

In a phone interview, the 48-year-old artist said, "I knew early on that I wanted to try to tell different kinds of stories. Some that really challenge your idea of what a war story is."

Sixteen of those make up "Jennifer Karady: In Country, Soldiers' Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan." At the Palm Springs Art Museum, Karady's exhibition pairs 4-foot-square photographs with printed accounts (two to seven paragraphs long) of the soldiers' experiences that led to the pictures.

Some are heart-wrenching. Most are harrowing. All are brutally honest. Many include more violence than seems humanly possible. There are moments of compassion, jolts of humor and no shortage of inexplicable coincidences, when logic falls short and belief reaches its breaking point. The individuality of veterans comes through, their voices unique, their experiences singular.

When the first wave of veterans began returning from the Iraq War, Karady was struck by their stories, which appeared in newspapers, online and eventually in the New England Journal of Medicine. She recalls, "I thought, 'Wow! — these are such important stories. Maybe there's some way I can work with soldiers.'"

Through veterans' groups, she met former soldiers, explained how she worked as an artist and began interviewing those who were interested. Initial sessions led to second, third and fourth meetings. Often, spouses, parents and children were included, in both the interviews and the photo shoots.

Over the last 10 years, Karady has interviewed 71 veterans and completed 20 portraits.

"Listening is the key ingredient to my artistic process," she says, "probably the skill that serves me best. The intimacy of really hearing the person's voice is powerful.

"The people I end up working with have a handle on their experiences — not to say that the interviews are not emotional. They've been thinking about this, trying to make sense of it, and making connections, connecting things from the war to what's happening now with their lives."

Karady describes each image as "kind of like a documentary film and a fiction film all rolled in one." Although the scenes she stages "would never exist in real life," that is less important than that they "reveal some kind of invisible emotional truth."

"For me as an artist," she says, "the challenge is to create something extraordinary for the camera. That's the fun and exciting part. I know I'm not a documentary photographer, but in terms of my relationship to the subject — the veteran — there is this sense of authenticity that I'm striving for."

She does not use a digital camera or alter her images on a computer. "I don't want to be able to go in later and just change the thing. We're creating this event that is actually a meaningful and authentic experience for the person in the photograph, and that potentially could even be helpful for them somehow."

"Technically," Karady says with a chuckle, "I am an old-school photographer." She spends time in the darkroom printing her midsize pictures because she values hands-on immediacy. She works with specialists to print her exhibition images because she values the vibrancy, crispness and saturation that are possible only with Chromogenic prints.

At the same time, her works are timely and raise questions that extend well beyond a print's literal dimensions. "Why wouldn't you try," Karady asks, "to make the most multilayered, the deepest, the smartest, the most meaningful work?"

Although that sometimes confuses viewers, she says, "Maybe my hybrid approach is a good thing, maybe that means the work is unique, doing something that hasn't been done."

That is what drew Daniell Cornell, the curator of the exhibition and the museum's director of art, to Karady's photographs. He says, "For almost 10 years, I had been looking for something that addressed veterans in a way that was more complex than the usual sort of polarization in terms of flag-waving versus agit-prop. I was immediately struck when I saw her work.

"I loved the way it engaged with the relationship between photography and film, I loved the way that it was both a kind of document and yet completely fictional, I loved the way that it looked at the notion of truth-telling through the lens of photography, and I loved, frankly, the saturated color."

Karady's eye for complexity suits her subjects, who often, she says, "talk about duality. They are civilians now, but they still have this soldier self they don't want to let go of. It's crucial to their identity. How to reconcile those two selves — that's something I'm trying to get at.

"How the war infiltrates the civilian world and how the past infiltrates the present — that collision of time, place, identity — I'm trying to represent that in a photograph, as opposed to just restaging the war. I'm trying to get at something a little deeper."

There's nothing sensationalistic about Karady's photographs. A dream-like stillness suffuses many, as if the people in them were drifting in an in-between state, where nothing happens fast and time seems stuck, not frozen but suspended — as if a repeat button had been hit and everything were being replayed, again and again.

"My goal is to make pictures that people want to look at for a long time," Karady says. "I am definitely interested in conflict. Conflicting feelings. And making room for that. Which is not something people naturally want to do.

"Part of the reason I'm making this work is to create opportunities for dialogue, for people to talk about things they don't generally want to think about or talk about, things that are really difficult to talk about. On one level, that happens with the veterans and the families. And that's really rewarding. My interest is also in a larger public dialogue."

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