War Is Personal
At the beginning of 2006 the war in Iraq was about to enter its fourth year. No WMDs had been found. There was sanctioned torture, deteriorating rules of law, tens of thousands of injured and dead in Iraq, more than 2,000 dead American soldiers, a rising suicide rate among American military personnel, scandals involving private contractors in Iraq and deteriorating conditions inside US military hospitals. All the while the media coolly debated what were to be considered legal or illegal killings in Iraq, what the conflict was costing America in image, what the war was costing the president in his popularity ratings and what the war was costing America in “treasure.”
I was asking myself for the thousandth time, “What can I do? Write letters, sign petitions, continue to protest, stop paying taxes?” I was a photojournalist and I had been too silent.
Then one day, after coming home from photographing an anti-war demonstration, though I’m no poet, I wrote a kind of poem. And it was this poem that indirectly led to this project and provided me with a focus.
War is personal
It’s my seventeen-year-old son Sam that
I’m thinking of when I say this
War is a reminder of all that we have
and all that we can lose
War is what happens when we fail
In late 2006 I began work on what would be a series of photo and textual essays focused on the lives of people in this country who’d been profoundly affected by the war. The text and the photographs wouldn’t be expository in nature, but experiential and of the moment. I spent time with 26-year-old Tomas Young, who had been shot, paralyzed, four days into his tour in Iraq. Tomas had accidentally overdosed on his meds the morning I visited. I photographed and interviewed Carlos Arredondo, whose Marine son had been killed in combat, then traveled to see Mona Parsons, who was trying to prevent her dutiful son from returning to his military unit in Iraq.
In the months that followed I attended a funeral service for Army Sergeant Princess Samuels; spent close to a week in a VA Hospital in Massachusetts documenting a woman’s struggle to keep her brain-injured son alive; interviewed and photographed a former combat medic who, upon returning home, had to deal with his escalating post-traumatic stress disorder; traveled to a small town in Minnesota to do a story on a single mom whose guilt-ridden Marine boyfriend had taken his life.
Eight photographic essays are now completed. With the assistance of a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography, I will undertake at least seven more, including one on a soldier who, after serving a few months in Iraq, fled to Canada with her husband and children; another on a family of Iraq refugees who have relocated to the United States. In the end there will be a book and a multimedia piece, which will interpose photographs with personal writings and interviews, the purpose being to advance the dialogue on the Iraq war and its terrible consequences.
Eugene Richards was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. After graduating from Northeastern University with degrees in English and journalism, he studied photography at M.I.T. with Minor White. In 1968, in lieu of imprisonment for resisting the military draft, he was offered a position in VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, a federal program established as an arm of the so-called ”War on Poverty.” Following a year and a half as a VISTA in eastern Arkansas, Eugene helped found a social service organization and a community newspaper, Many Voices, which reported on black political action as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Photographs he made during these four years were published in his first book, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta.
Upon returning to Dorchester, Eugene began to document the changing, racially charged neighborhood where he was born. The self-published Dorchester Days subsequently became the catalyst for his joining Magnum Photos in 1978. He began working increasingly as a freelance magazine photographer, undertaking assignments on such diverse topics as the American family, drug addiction, river blindness, pediatric AIDS, abuses within the meatpacking industry and aging and death in America. In 1992, he directed and shot Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, the first of seven short films that he would eventually make.
Eugene is perhaps best known for his books. Exploding Into Life, which chronicles his first wife Dorothea Lynch‘s struggle with breast cancer, received Nikon's Book of the Year award. For Below the Line: Living Poor in America, his documentation of urban and rural poverty, Eugene was named Photojournalist of the Year by the International Center of Photography. The Knife & Gun Club: Scenes From an Emergency Room received an Award of Excellence from the American College of Emergency Physicians. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, an extensive reportorial on the effects of hardcore drug usage, received the Kraszna-Krausz Award for Photographic Innovation in Books. That same year, Americans We was the recipient of the International Center of Photography's Infinity Award for Best Photographic Book. Stepping Through the Ashes, an elegy to those who lost their lives in New York on 9/11, received the Golden Light Book Award for best collaboration with a writer. More recently, Pictures of the Year International chose The Fat Baby, an anthology of 15 photographic essays, Best Book in 2005.
Among numerous photography honors, Eugene has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award, two Olivier Rebbot Awards from the Overseas Press Club, a Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Journalism Award for coverage of the disadvantaged. But, the day came, a film written and directed by Eugene, was named Best Short Film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Eugene’s photographs have been extensively collected and exhibited in more than 40 solo shows in the United States and abroad. Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, the International Center of Photography in New York, Centre National de la Photographie and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris and VISA pour l’Image in Perpignan are but a few of the many institutions that have hosted his exhibitions. In June 2007, Eugene was honored with a large-scale retrospective, Thirteen Books, at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia.
More about his work can be found at www.eugenerichards.com.