“The Unknown Soldier” is a series of large scale photographs of severely wounded young soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is very intense work.) Shot by photographer David Jay, “The Unknown Soldier documents the lives and stories of these young men upon their return home.” (David Jay)
This is remarkable work. Look at all of it. Jay is taking superb portraits of severely injured soldiers from our Middle East wars. Conventionally photographs like these become pictures of disfigurement and injury rather then portraits of people. Jay succeeds brilliantly in taking portraits of individuals. It is much easier to be shocked by disfigurement than to see the human beings whose injured bodies shape their lives, but are not remotely all that they are.
I spent 25 years making portraits that have included many people society prefers to ignore or attack, whether for reasons of racism, size, disability, gender or other oppressions. I have a strong and evolving ethic and aesthetic in my work. What I strive to do is to make a portrait that evoke an authentic sense of the person in the picture; and sets the viewer and the person in the photo as equals. I set a very high bar for myself in doing this. I’ve looked at a lot of work over the years and remarkably little of it is even interested in doing this.
All of this means that I profoundly appreciate and value what David Jay has done in these photographs.
Quotes are from an NPR interview with Jay.
It’s impolite to stare. But when it comes to severely injured soldiers, maybe we don’t look enough; or maybe we’d rather not see wounded veterans at all.
That’s the message you get from photographer David Jay’s Unknown Soldier series. Jay spent three years taking portraits of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but before that — for nearly 20 years — he was a fashion photographer. His stylish, artful images appeared in magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
“The fashion stuff is beautiful and sexy — and completely untrue,” he says.
… We hear about ‘this number of men were killed’ and ‘this many were injured,'” Jay says, “and we think of them — maybe they got shot — or we don’t really picture what these injured men look like.”
So Jay visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., and one of the first injured soldiers he met there was Capt. Nicholas Vogt. In 2011, an explosive device detonated under Vogt’s feet in Afghanistan, nearly killing him. His legs had to be amputated.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Jay says. “It appeared that he ended at his waist.”
He asked Vogt if he would be willing to be photographed.
“And Nicholas was very kind and said, ‘Listen, I understand what you’re doing but I don’t think I can take part in that, certainly [not] right now,'” Jay recalls.
About a year later, Jay was back at Walter Reed and from across the room he heard someone yell, “Hey, photographer!” This time, Vogt wanted to participate. He’d been working hard at his recovery and seeing results. He was swimming a lot and he had a girlfriend (a nurse at Walter Reed who is now his fiancee). Vogt gave Jay permission to take his picture, but he had some parameters.
(click to enlarge photographs)
“I wanted to make sure there was action, it was movement,” Vogt says. “Because I didn’t want to portray myself as someone that’s just waiting for medical retirement and going to be stationary for the rest of my life.”
David Jay delivered. In his portrait of Vogt, he captures that sensation of jumping into a swimming pool and feeling your body descend to the bottom. Vogt’s arms are stretched out and his eyes are tightly shut. Beneath his black swim trunks, there is nothing.
Vogt doesn’t know how other people will react to the portrait, but he’s glad he did it. “I just know I felt fulfilled afterwards,” he says. “I felt like it represented me as a person. Yeah, I was happy with the result.”
Other portraits in Jay’s Unknown Soldier series are more graphic.
Take Army Spc. Jerral Hancock: On his 21st birthday, a roadside bomb hit the tank Hancock was driving in Iraq. The explosion sent shrapnel into his spine, paralyzing him.
Jay’s photographs of Hancock show him with his young son — in one, their eyes are fixed on each other; in another, they’re looking at the camera. In both, the veteran is bare-chested, revealing his tattoos and the mangled skin and bone where his left arm was amputated.
… Jay believes these wounds belong to all of us: “You can imagine how many times each of these men and women have heard a parent tell their child, ‘Don’t look. Don’t stare at him. That’s rude.’ I take these pictures so that we can look; we can see what we’re not supposed to see. And we need to see them because we created them.”
Jay believes seeing is one step closer to understanding.
The breadth of the individual character and dignity in his work is a tribute both to Jay’s art and the people he photographed.