They have a “faraway look,” these soldiers from Spokane, photographed in Iraq, their images mounted on the walls of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
Photographer Jed Conklin, who captured their images at Joint Base Balad where they are stationed with the Washington National Guard’s 161st Regiment, hears that a lot from people who have seen his exhibit. It’s unintentional, he said.
The guardsmen were photographed over a two-week period, in various locations: the opening of a tent, the doorway of a barracks or an office, a truck. The backgrounds are dark, creating contrast with the soldiers’ faces and making their eyes stand out.
“I like the way the almost harsh light gives (the photos) a contrast,” he said. “I wanted a strong contrast from their daily (civilian) lives to what they do now.”
Some soldiers are relaxing, some coming off duty and others headed out for a convoy. Some Conklin spent time with, others “I just came across.”
“They asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And I said, ‘This is your photograph. Do what you want,’ ” he said. “This is what they did.”
Only three of the more than two dozen soldiers have even a hint of a smile. All but one of the soldiers in the exhibit are men. The exception is Sgt. Alicia Chivers.
“It’s a man’s Army, so it’s pretty cool to see a woman stand her ground,” Conklin said. He asked several other women if he could take their photos, and they declined.
The pictures have resonated with a community that has seen its local Army Guard unit called up to a second deployment in Iraq, and they’ll reappear around July 4 in the River Park Square atrium, Conklin said.
The photos are an outgrowth of a month Conklin spent in Iraq last fall. The former Spokesman-Review photographer went to the Middle East to document the environmental impacts of war in the marshes of southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had dammed rivers and retaliated against residents who backed the coalition forces in the first Gulf War. Photographing members of the 161st, who arrived at about the same time, was “an afterthought,” he said.
“I thought I’d shoot pictures of local guys, bring ’em back and show people back home,” he said. He considered having them available for a welcome home ceremony and giving photos to family members. The museum heard about the photos and offered to display them – if Conklin could have them ready in three weeks. With help from Spokesman-Review photographer Christopher Anderson and donations for mounting and framing, he got them ready on the tight deadline.
He’s received calls and e-mails from families and friends thanking him for the exhibit. Conklin downplayed his role.
“These guys are the ones doing everything. I just took some pictures,” he said.