I am a fool (to be pulled by such things)

While researching the next [previous] piece of writing, I read the following, written by Sebastian Junger to his friend and collaborator, Tim Hetherington shortly after Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya

"I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you."

I read it and I felt a small tug of jealousy. Not for the dying, but for the potential, the mythology, the chance to look into the abyss – the notion that destiny exists and these lives we lead aren't just bungled day after bungled day. It's a fucked up thing to feel, but these days, more than ever, there it is.


Feeding a Bear

There's a belief tracing throughout the cartography of combat photography that the penultimate goal is to get as close to (understanding) the soldier as possible.
This is totally valid – for the photographer as well as the viewer – and some of my favourite photos in this vein are the late Tim Hetherington's images from the Korengal Valley*. Nowhere is this desire most evident than in his "sleeping soldier' portraits. His recent death, occurring in Libya while I was in Suffield (the asymmetry of which was not lost on me), was a shocking event and I will say, without qualification, that he is/was my favourite (that's the wrong word) combat photographer.

Having stated that, I'd offer the documentary Marwencol as a project which takes this notion of knowing the unknown to a compelling but problematic end. In the film, the director, the photographer (who makes the initial discovery) and the gallery in NYC (White Columns) that eventually exhibit Mark Hogancamp's photos are clearly enamoured with the damaged genius that rises out of trauma. They all want to share his pain, struggle and brilliance with the world. Concurrently though, there's an underlying sense of pride in their part in this discovery. Like finding a pygmy tribe and touring them through Europe, there's a sort of "check this out!" sentiment that has an air of well-intentioned exploitation.

In the aftermath of Hetherington's death, his co-director Sebastian Junger received an email from a Vietnam vet. The vet was following up on a previous discussion where he'd told Junger (something along the lines of), "you guys came real close to understanding what it's like to be a soldier." In this coda, the vet told Junger that, the only way they could ever fully know what it's like to be a soldier is to lose a buddy in war. Hetherington was chosen and Junger gained the knowledge... but it was impossible for them to both learn this truth.

Watching Restrapo, but more so, reading through Infidel, there's a strong sense that Hetherington was looking for something. Maybe he was attempting to know "the other", maybe he was trying to find a version of himself in their faces, or maybe trying to see what the difference actually was between himself and the paratroopers. This is not a cautionary tale, though it might be a diversion: Did this draw to the eye of the storm give him something necessary for himself, something that he was unable to break away from?

As is often the case, I have meandered off topic (but from what I understand, this is the point of a blog). What is the necessity to "know"? The attempt almost always has an indelible effect. Sometimes it costs you your life, sometimes your marriage. Sometimes you develop the belief that you've become incapable of producing any other type of art. This is as much hyperbole as it is cold truth.

Here we are – at the point: As important as it can be/is to help the world to understand the grunts, the distance that exists is necessary and is, in fact, sought out by them. Without such distance the intensity of the fraternal bond is diminished – at least until the rounds start cracking... and at that moment it might be too late.


*Hetherington is best known for being the co-director of
Restrapo (with Junger) but in 2010 his photo book, Infidel, was published. They are a pair that, at first, didn't really grab me (more than I thought they would) be each time I come back to them I learn and relearn something


Neither here nor there nor here

There are a number of portraits within the body of photos to date, but I'd make a lousy reporter: I'm just too self-conscious and shy to insinuate myself into the life of the battalion to the degree necessary for human interest stories. This might be a reason I went into the insular world of visual art production.

A couple of weeks back, I met Louie Palu briefly. I walked away from the encounter thinking, "Man, that guy is confident and gregarious." It seems very easy to understand how a ballsy dude (and I think his photos attest to both those qualities) could find a home with the Grunts and Jarheads. I was mentioning this (my own awkwardness) to Amanda Nedham and she suggested I take up smoking, or take up pretending to smoke, as a means to start chats with the troops. It'd work for sure. The Army still holds dear its smoker core.

But at the same time I'm a proponent of honesty in the medium. Paintings should demonstrate the mark, a fart should always be acknowledged by the dealer and awkward relationships between soldier and (this) artist should seep into the imagery.

I'd like to think there are numerous readings and entry angles to the above images but one of them is the lack of engagement between them and myself. That's one of the great contradictions/tensions of documentary photography – the objective nature of the image (a moment caught, not judged) versus the attempt to use the photo to bring light to some greater truth or unknown quality. This tension is an understandable by-product of human interaction, even if one of them is pointing a camera at the other without asking permission.

The saying goes, "Once a Patricia, Always a Patricia" so it should be reasonably easy for me to sidle up and snap some cozy shots. No viewer needs to know this, but all of my shots with actual faces, especially ones where the subject engages the camera were taken by an anxious me.

But let's pull this back from the inevitable navel gazing and suggest that from an objective POV these images suggest the separateness that is part of soldiering, of the inevitable and needed distance between combat soldiers and civilians. There is a fundamentally utopic element to the infantry. Utopia requires an inversion of social norms and an idealized view of its principals. Distance is crucial and
when that distance is breached awkwardness seems an unavoidable by-product of the equation.


Why bother?

To paint, that is.

Previous to this project, I've mostly worked with cameras that gave me enough to paint from but not enough to really stand alone. This time though I plonked down a wad on a Rebel 2Ti. I'd like to think years of painting has given me a certain aesthetic eye, but at the same time, the new camera has really helped to create stand-alone photos. Going into the purchase I suspected I'd have to start making more nuanced decisions as to what might become a painting and what need not become born again – what's already a fully formed universe.

The question for all painters, but especially those who might fall into or near the realist camp, is "Why am I choosing to make this image with paint? If there's no answer then maybe there's no reason, no justification. Maybe that's an arguable point, but really there's nothing lamer than dudes at outdoor art shows with large printed signs above images of Formula 1 race cars proudly proclaiming "These images are painted by hand. They are not photos!" The Self-congratulation of empty verisimilitude is a tiresome endeavour.

But as to the initial question, the decision to paint or not is highly subjective and personal. The choices manifested in these first studies are principally derived by the attempt to pick source photos that have strong abstract/formal qualities; that while being recognizable in content also slide towards spaces that, for lack of a better word, become contemplative.

Haruki Murakami, in his memoir
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, describes the act of running as an attempt to enter a void. As a long-tine runner myself this fleeting void is something to cherish when it slips itself around you. But the act of painting offers a similar space and these resulting objects also might offer some reference to
(or evidence of) The Void – at least for myself, if not for the viewer. This question of contemplation, physical exertion and the aesthetics of violence is an ongoing one for me and will likely maintain its presence in the work to come.

Smoke 1 (9"x12"), oil on masonite

Smoke 2 (9"x12"), oil on masonite

Fire at the Village, (9"x12"), oil on masonite

Tracers 1 (9"x12"), oil on masonite

Waiting, (9"x12"), oil on masonite


Chronologically speaking: It begins with mud

The day before I flew out to Suffield, Capt. Derek Forsythe, the Base Public Affairs Officer (PAFO if you prefer) called to make sure I was bringing some good rubber boots.

In short: The man saved me from 10 days of muddy misery. Thanks!

The roads were akin to WW1 trench systems (minus the corpses and rats). Vehicles were stuck in multiples and road access and egress were increasingly limited. In some ways it was all kinds of fun: slopping around, nearly rolling vehicles, holding on with blind faith as you drove into some unknown sinkhole. At the same time, the toll on vehicles quickly accumulated: Transmissions grinding down to nothing, differentials blowing out, metal tow cables snapping and shearing clean into windshields. Also though, it became a real challenge to keep the training on track and the units stocked with essential supplies. More to the point, the less-than-clear connection between this brigade level live fire training and the about-to-begin training mission added to the sense of redundancy. Certainly, grumbling is one of a soldier's inalienable rights, but there was a sense, barely masked, that this EX was the wrong one at the wrong time.

It's not fair to end it here though as there was much good to come from the time in Suffield. For many of the troops this was the first chance to work together before deploying, and there's always the ethos that all training is good training... especially if it's raining.

Near the end of my visit, when the night at CS8 (Adm. Coy HQ) became hairy with multiple stuck vehicles, a roll-over and onagain-offagain emergency water run, The CQ of Adm. briefly rolled up his shirt, Daisy Duke manner, showing off his buff-gopher torso. There's no photo, but it was a nice little moment of furry calm from the man who held the evening's whole show together.

Here's some mud:


Here we go

In the weeks prior to typing this first blog entry I was trying to figure out what the larger trajectory of this project was going to be. Thanks to Tim O'Brien and Craig Alun Smith, I think I have a clue. There are many ways for me to enter this newest War Art project, but the question, "who do I make this for?" remains central. There are allegiances at play here, not least of which is artvsarmy, craftvscontent. Of course it's not a versus, but here I go, trying to have it all.

Wilfred Owen stated he wrote poems about being a soldier in WWI with the principal goal of attempting to explain warfare as he knew it. The craft of poetry was the means to that end, a methodology to describe the indescribable, the best way to externalize what had come from the world and had hunkered down inside himself (and would end up killing him at the age of 25). So, yes, as I begin this project, the balance between craft and content (and their interchangeability) is front and foremost.

"The Things They Carried" O'Brien talks about how his young daughter wonders why he continued to write about his experience as a grunt in Vietnam, a period 20 years in his past. A similar situation confronts me. As a purely peace-time grunt, my service contained little of what might be considered worthy of 2 decades of holding on. Indeed, 10 years ago I was well and clear of The Army. In 2005 though I was accepted in The Canadian Forces Artist Program, and in the intervening 6 years it has brought me closer and closer to that which I ran from so hard in '92. And when I say closer, I don't necessarily mean the idea of the soldier or the theories related to infantry society. I mean the smell of diesel and cordite, the texture of IMP rations, the absolute anonymity of army coffee and the binge-and-purge tempo of a combat battalion in the field. I've chosen to participate for both self-serving and altruistic reasons... but the sum total of this endeavour is that even as the years accumulate I also feel closer to being a soldier than I have since that headlong rush to escape. (And it has come at a price)

On April 08, 2011 I flew from my home in Toronto to Calgary AB, then boarded a bus to CFB Suffield AB. Most often described through derisive terms, the village (seems too quaint a term, but gives a sense of scale) of Suffield is bleak and minimal – a single large trailer sits by Hwy. 1, holding the restaurant and variety store that services a cluster of pre-fab and mobile homes – but the training area is massive. At 2619 sq. km of badlands it goes on and on.

The trip to Suffield was the beginning of my second round of activity with The Canadian Forces Artist program, a project which should see me to Kabul (perhaps also Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif) by year's end. More specifically and saliently, I am following various groups from
3PPCLI as they begin their deployment on Roto 0 of Canada's Training mission to Afghanistan. It's no coincidence that The Third is my old battalion as I made a specific request through CFAP to "go home again". It's been 2 decades since I got out and this was my first contact with the battalion.

What's to come is a consideration and depiction of those facts but also an attempt to gain some sense of war art's potential and purpose: Its role as an official project for the government of the nation I call home, how such work can find its way to those who might gain something from it and, yep, a goal of clarifying whom I am actually making this work for... other than myself.