Winter 2009 | Online Exclusives

When War Ends: The Trauma That Remains

An Essay in Words and Photographs

By Lori Grinker
In her introduction to “Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict,” photographer Lori Grinker writes, “If I have discovered any single truth about war … it is that it is a deeply personal experience. … What is common to all is the aftermath.” As Alicia Anstead, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, who moderated the panel “Artistic Expression: Trauma as Muse,” said of Grinker’s work, “in the veterans’ photography, in particular, but also in other topics that she photographs, I actually see the echo of Goya, I see the intensity of Vermeer, the vibrancy of David Hockney, and the fearlessness of Frida Kahlo. Today, we turn to this artist to illuminate the … relationship between her work and her subject.” Edited excerpts from her talk “Using the human body as the narrative device to portray the horrors of war” follow:

In “Afterwar,” what was important to me was telling the story of women, children and men from various types of conflicts and situations, such as people who had been imprisoned, who’d done things during the war that they would never do in their civilian life, and exploring what makes them cross that line. As a young man from England who served in the Falklands said, “there’s no button they can press to switch your emotions back on.” In “Afterwar,” Iraq War veterans are included in the introduction in the book, which is organized from the most recent conflict to those going back in time—from Sri Lanka to World War I, peeling back the layers of history.

Grinker also described what continues to propel her to do the work she does.

After working in the field for nearly 15 years documenting stories of war veterans, I found it difficult to take in much more information; I was overwhelmed with so many emotions. However, I’d been in Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and in March 2003 at the start of the American invasion of Iraq, I was RELATED ARTICLE
Grinker’s photo essay, “Iraqis: Making Visible the Scars of Exile,” was in the Summer 2008 Nieman Reports.
embedded on a magazine assignment on the USNS Comfort, the American hospital ship.

When I returned home, I found it difficult to listen to reports from the war; even reading novels with war stories became challenging. I needed a break, so I started photographing landscapes and lighter subject matter. But all the while I was thinking about the Iraqis I’d met on the ship as many wounded Iraqis were brought there for treatment. I wondered what became of them and what would become of the detainees in Guantanamo. This led me to begin my project documenting the lives of Iraqi refugees and of the wounded.

Something keeps bringing me back to war—to the effects of war. I think it’s to try to understand something that in a way remains so foreign to me, but to understand it from a very human and personal level. Because once news coverage diminishes, the war is still going on for these people, and they live with its consequences. How does it affect their lives long term? It’s a story I feel needs to be told. 

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