HCP's "Soldier, At Ease" Captures the Human Behind the Camo

At various points during this embittered election, talks of the events in the Middle East came up. Did we accomplish anything? Has anything changed from the time we entered upon their foreign soil? Opinions run wild and tend to polarize on either side of the political spectrum, but the one thing that both parties tend to do is champion the soldier. They are placed on hero levels, but rarely are they given names, emotions or recognition of their lives when they are not being "a soldier." Soldier, At Ease, the new exhibit at the Houston Center for Photography, aims to change this.

Soldier, At Ease, which opened last night, is a collection of three bodies of work by photojournalists Tim Hetherington, Louie Palu and Erin Trieb. Each of the artists has captured rare moments where soldiers aren't acting like soldiers, but rather they are acting like human beings.

Louie Palu's series, Afghanistan: Garmsir Marines, was taken during 2008 at the Forward Operating Base in Garmsir, Hemland Province, Afghanistan. The base is described as one of the worst areas in terms of Taliban insurgencies; a somewhat forgotten place by the U.S. government as they refocused their attention on Iraq. The conditions at the base were horrific.

Palu's intent was to capture these soldiers as individuals and people. Rather than depict the "anonymous" hero as a part of a military unit, Palu has put the "I" in "team." Each of the 15 images in this series is a close up shot of a soldier taken at the day's end. The lighting is natural and the camera picks up every detail on each man's face. The photos are haunting in their simplicity. Palu has found a way to bring the camera behind these soldiers' eyes, and the result is as striking as it is sad.

Photojournalist Erin Trieb embarked on a three-year project following the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. Rather than focus on their time in the field, Trieb finds her subjects after their return. In The Homecoming Project, Trieb aimes to tell a visual story of what happens when soldiers come home. "After the welcoming home ceremonies and the parades are over," Trieb says, service members must come to grips with a very different type of enemy - the one inside of them. Many of Trieb's subjects were grappling with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; several of them committed suicide.

Trieb's photos are blatantly honest. She invites the viewer into the secret world of the soldier, where most are not allowed to go. Trieb, who was on-hand to discuss her work, described her relationship with her subjects as being right past that fine line where the photojournalist becomes the friend. It is obvious that her subjects regarded her as such; only friendship allows for such intimate connections.

In addition to the photograph collections, documentarian Tim Hetherington's film collage Sleeping Soldiers is on display. A three-panel video of soldiers sleeping inter-cut with action footage, takes viewers to yet another intimate place in a soldier's life.

Watching anyone stranger sleep feels like a violation of privacy, yet Hetherington is asking the viewer to do just that. When people sleep, they are truly vulnerable. Behind the sleeping soldiers a soundtrack of fear plays; men scream and cry. The entire experience is very upsetting. Even more upsetting is the knowledge that Hetherington, an Academy Award nominated director, was tragically killed while reporting in Libya.

It's not easy to look beyond the camouflage and see a U.S. soldier as anything other than a number in a unit. Soldier, At Ease strips down the soldier to their core and invites the viewer to see them for who they really are - people.

Soldier, At Ease is on display at the Houston Center for Photography through January 6. For more information visit hcponline.org.

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