The tale told by Jennifer Karady: In Country, Soldiers’ Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan, a powerful photography exhibit now on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum, has three parts; however, gallery visitors get to see only two.
We see the prologue, which lets us know what occurs prior to soldiers being deployed. We see the epilogue, in which we meet members of the military after they return to their homes.
What happens in between—the events and their experiences during their tours of duty—is left to the viewer’s imagination. This forces us to create our own narrative; it creates a palpable tension.
The exhibition appropriately takes up most of the gallery space on the museum’s lower floor. Karady begins her narrative in the long, narrow Jorgensen Gallery—a confined space that forces visitors to view each image on its own terms. The 17 smaller images, plus some Polaroid pictures, presented in the Jorgensen Gallery were taken in Joshua Tree and at the 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The military uses the Joshua Tree area because it resembles the terrain of both Afghanistan and Iraq.
A staged picture of a soldier standing against the harsh Joshua Tree terrain suggests a sense of aloneness and hope. The image of a 29 Palms Marine Corps graduating class affirms commitment.
After experiencing the works in the Jorgensen Gallery, visitors enter the open, well-lit and comparatively expansive Marks Graphics Center. It is here where Karady presents the epilogue, via 16 oversized photographs.
The abrupt change in focus is jarring: What was a factual documentary quickly becomes highly individualized, psychological portraits. Karady’s process includes in-depth interviews with each soldier photographed.
The photographer acknowledges that each picture is staged to produce a personal, insightful and individualized image; a statement derived from each interview accompanies each picture. Every pairing conveys unique sentiments—isolation, hope, desolation, reconciliation, camaraderie and transition.
The portrait of Lance Cpl. West Chase, walking hand in hand with his fiancée, Emily Peden, captures a sense of isolation and going against the flow. After leaving the military, Chase began pursuing an advanced degree at a Midwestern university. The couple, positioned in the center of the picture, walks toward the viewer. On either side is a line of individuals who are walking in the opposite direction. Each of these young adults is wearing a yellow T-shirt. In the top left part of the image are four standing adults who look like they may be originally from the Middle East.
John Holman shows us his anger and his struggle to work through it; he is a Bay Area resident completing a doctorate in clinical psychology and preparing for the California State Bar. Holman consumes the front left quadrant. Two friends of Holman, facing in opposite directions, stand in the dark background, seemly oblivious to the former military man. With Holman holding a clinical psychology book and a law textbook, the artist presents a combination of anger, hope and potential healing. But … the former soldier’s right hand, which is holding the books, is in the shape of the gun. Is the photographer suggesting that his anger is always below the surface? Is she simply tempering the optimism? Or is she letting him work through his past?
The German word “weltschmetz,” meaning heightened and extreme angst, is at the core of Karady’s picture of Sgt. Jose Adames. The image, taken in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, positions the former soldier in a crouching, almost-fetal position. Large, full black trash bags and a discarded mattress sitting on its side serve as a barrier between Adames and an approaching garbage truck. Adames, in his interview, notes that loud noises, like cars backfiring and garbage trucks, bring his mind back to the Middle East.
One of the most hopeful pictures is of Capt. Elizabeth Condon, with her daughter, Kate, and mother, Elizabeth. Karady’s precise staging produces a highly lyrical and flowing composition; it has a religious quality. The captain, in a squatting position, faces her daughter, while her mother, like a guardian angel, watches over both. A green bush with orange-red flowers seems to create a halo over the captain’s head. Because of Karady’s annotation, the photographer’s inclusion of a Muslim woman—with a highly visible Caesarean scar—neither disturbs nor detracts from the mood. In fact, it adds to the optimistic tone.
Karady’s messages are clear: The human costs of serving in the Middle East are significant; these veterans are our neighbors; and each returning veteran has unique needs to ensure a smooth transition to civilian life.
It’s a powerful exhibit worth your time.
Jennifer Karady: In Country, Soldiers’ Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan is on display through Sunday, March 29, at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday through Sunday; and noon to 8 p.m., Thursday. Admission fees vary. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit www.psmuseum.org.