PORTLAND, Oregon — Artist Jim Lommasson hates war. His exhibit of 1,500 photographs, taken by soldiers who served in Iraq, brings the war home to the United States, in a way he hopes will help bring it to an end.
“It’s all about the soldier’s lives upon their return home,” Lommasson, a soft-spoken man with kind, yet piercing eyes, told IPS at a reception for his powerful exhibit in mid-October. “I want people to listen to the soldiers. I want them to support the veterans, and hear what they have to say about Iraq, and what they’ve done to civilians.”
The photographs, handpicked from thousands brought home on laptops by soldiers who served in the occupation of Iraq, are grouped together on two walls. Collages of photos surround larger photos of the soldier who took them, along with quotes from interviews Lommasson conducted with them over the last year.
“Mom, I wouldn’t wish war on my worst enemy,” reads one photo. Nearby it are photos of bombs exploding, Iraqi children peering at the photographer, and another photo taken through the scope of what looks like a sniper’s scope, with the cross-hairs square on the head of an Iraqi man standing in a doorway.
While looking at this quote, signed by “Former Marine John”, Mary Geddry, a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) Oregon and mother of the Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq and was quoted in the photo, introduced herself.
“He told me that to my face,” Geddry said, with tears in her eyes, “My son is 100 percent disabled now, with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.”
The project is in response to the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, and the longstanding U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Lommasson told IPS his hope is that the exhibit brings to light questions about a generation of soldiers that is increasingly invisible to the U.S. public.
“I think everybody understands their [soldiers’] honesty, and what they are saying, everybody needs to hear,” Lommasson told IPS among the crowds of visitors in the gallery.
As Lommasson was speaking, a woman, in tears, approached him, wiping her eyes. He caught her gaze.
“My brother showed me photos like this when he came back from Iraq,” she told him, “I’ll bring him up here to see this. Thank you so much for doing this. He needs to see this to know he is not alone.”
Lommasson thanked her, and watched her walk out of the gallery.
“My goal with this project is to try bring to light how devastating these wars have been, what deeds have been perpetrated in our name, and the real long term economic and human effects on all of us,” he continued.
“I want to talk to the people on the other side of the isle. They won’t listen to me. But they have romanticised and fetishised “The Troops”, so they should be obligated to listen to the troops. If they do, they will hear a different story than what they have been fed by the convenient media. Exit Wounds allows the soldiers to speak.”
Lommasson experienced the heartbreaking and profound stories directly from the soldiers themselves. “They tell about inhumane acts that they have committed and witnessed, and what we have done to the Iraqi and Afghanistan people. The American public has been allowed to function without much awareness of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We have been told to just go shop.”
“Most Americans don’t know a soldier,” he added, “and don’t have had much of a personal connection. Since the Iraq war has become very unpopular, I fear that there will be an unfortunate confusion of the war and the warrior. They are two very different things. I also feel that we owe the soldiers and vets support after their service, not just in the recruiter’s office. We can learn from the soldiers about their trials and what the U.S. is doing in the Middle East and around the world.”
The photos are powerful, even for this writer, who has reported from Iraq and seen the carnage firsthand.
There are several “trophy photos” — of eviscerated bodies, a scorched foot, a piece of arm lying in the middle of a road — scattered throughout the exhibit.
At least three of the patrons are veterans. The rest stand at different points, taking in the various collages of photographs.
One group of pictures finds a mosque, a blown up Humvee, photos of soldiers in various poses in Iraq, pools of blood on concrete, and the barrel of a tank with “Size Does Matter” painted on it.
Near this group is a photo of a quote from one of the photographers, likely the one who took the nearby collage. It reads:
“After I got back I was drinking a lot, trying to drown it out. I would wake up punching my pillow or the wall. I’d just be screaming in my room, just screaming and not realise. I was putting weapons throughout the house strategically, so that if anyone were to break into my house, I would have a weapon at every possible point in the house in case somebody broke a window. I’d be ready.”
Both the quotes and the photographs drive home the anguish troops are carrying back home after their time in Iraq. Some of the quotes speak just to that feeling.
“As for now, I’ve taken up the maddening task of reminding my (a)pathetic civilian peers that there are wars going on, that people are dying, that they are doing nothing to stop their government from this ongoing atrocity.”
The exhibit, titled “Exit Wounds”, by Lommasson, a critically acclaimed photographer himself, is at the New American Art Union from Oct. 17 through Nov. 30.
Proceeds from the show benefit veterans and Iraqi children, and Lommasson invites other soldiers and veterans to add their photos and words to the walls.
“I hope to travel this across the country,” Lommasson told IPS. “I think this is therapy for the vets whose words and photos are on display here, as well as for our country.”