JACKI LYDEN, host:
How do you photograph memory? Photographer Jennifer Karady is trying to do it. Her latest endeavor is to capture how memories of war continue to live with veterans who've returned home. A photo series, In Country: Soldiers' Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, is now on display at SF CameraWorks in San Francisco.
But as NPR's Claire O'Neill reports, the intersection of art and war can be difficult territory.
Ms. STARLYN LARA: We've lost our friends, our comrades, our loved ones, and you come back and it's just as if that never happened.
CLAIRE O'NEILL: Starlyn Lara brought home a memory that intrigued photographer Jennifer Karady. In Karady's photo, Lara is bolt upright in bed - as if waking from a nightmare. The room around her is completely scorched, but she's fully clad in uniform and a giant pink rabbit looms in the background.
It's meant to give voice to the recurring nightmare she's had since surviving a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Ms. LARA: It's hard to just say, you know, hey, I'm still mourning, I'm still hurting over this. This is still really sad for me, but you just pick up and you just move on and then you suppress and you suppress.
O'NEILL: Lara is not alone in that experience. The photo series starts with Mike Sprouse. He's standing on the side of a road in suburban Virginia. It looks like one of those eerily quiet summer afternoons saturated with color. His pristine pickup truck is pulled over in this Rockwellian(ph) neighborhood of little houses and manicured lawns.
But he's in full army uniform, staring at a tire with wires coming out of it. And suddenly it's obvious: he thought that tire was an IED, an improvised explosive device. The photo symbolizes how Sprouse is living in two words: physically he's in suburban America but his mind and reflexes are still in Afghanistan. That's what Karady wanted to show.
Ms. JENNIFER KARADY (Photographer): To give the viewer a glimpse into maybe what's going on in a veteran's head and what it's like to come home with this memory and that it lives with you. Even though you're back here in the civilian world, it's there in that person's mind and manifesting itself in specific ways.
O'NEILL: Karady thought her style of photography might be a good way to tell the veterans' stories visually.
Ms. KARADY: I think this project is really a hybrid of a lot of different things. There's a slightly journalistic quality to it. Then there's the fine art, kind of a visual interpretation of the story. And then I'm also kind of inspired by the history of stage narrative tableau painting, which sometimes defies category a little bit.
O'NEILL: Her style is probably closer to Renaissance portraiture than documentary photography in the way the photos are posed. Before 2004, her work had nothing to do with war, but in following the news of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Karady says she was particularly compelled by the veterans' first-person narrative.
And that's what she's trying to capture in this series. How the sound of a Brooklyn dump truck, for example, can bring a veteran back to a mortar explosion. In a sense, it almost seems therapeutic. But then why are the photos so abstract and artsy? Is this really about the vets? Is it art? Is it an anti-war message?
Mr. PHILIP KENNICOTT (Culture Critic, Washington Post): What I sense are different vectors.
O'NEILL: Philip Kennicott, culture critic at the Washington Post, says the more you look at these photos the more Karady's artistic style almost eclipses the stories.
Mr. KENNICOTT: And when the vector of art is becoming more prominent, I begin to worry about the soldiers. I begin to think: are they being manipulated? Are they being staged by this photographer? On the other hand, the soldiers' stories, which are printed next to, underneath the images, when those take precedence, I begin to think, well, what about the art? Why is this an art project? You know, the account of the soldiers' experience is self-sufficient and emotionally powerful and maybe we don't even need the art.
O'NEILL: But exhibition curator Chuck Mobley says politics and style are irrelevant. This is about getting people to talk.
Mr. CHUCK MOBLEY (Exhibition Curator): The fact remains that there are veterans coming back every day with these memories and with these experiences that color their life. And their being so generous as to share that with other people so that we can sort of have some kind of understanding, as removed or as abstract as it might be, I think it's really important. It's sort of like getting a peak behind the curtain a little bit.
O'NEILL: What's behind the curtain is a person, says veteran Starlyn Lara. That's what she says the series is about.
Ms. LARA: It helps to put the viewer in the mindset that, wow, you know, she's still a person. She's someone who had experienced some very extreme events but she's still just a person and also a soldier.
O'NEILL: In hindsight, it's the stories that stick with you. Critic Philip Kennicott says photographer Jennifer Karady's series may not be art capital A, but it's onto something.
Mr. KENNICOTT: I do think that one or two of these images are good both as art and as statements about war because they capture a mood of isolation and they capture a mood of fear and anxiety in the midst of an absolutely normal image of America. And that's a powerful thing to do. It reminds those of us who are not in the war zone or haven't been to the war zone to look and think differently about the people who've come back from it. That's worth something. That's not a negligible accomplishment.
Ms. KARADY: I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think that it was going to do some good somehow.
O'NEILL: Whether or not Jennifer Karady's work is therapeutic, whether or not art can be reconciled with war, it has sparked conversation, gotten veterans to tell their difficult stories and gotten the civilian world, at least those whove seen the photos, to visualize the unimaginable.
Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
LYDEN: Our Picture Show blog has some of Jennifer Karady's portraits of veterans. Go see them on our site, NPR.org.