In 2010 Eugene Richards published the book War is Personal, which documented the devastating effects that serving in Iraq has had on some veterans and their families. Now with the help of another Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography, Richards plans to continue the project, looking this time at soldiers returning from Afghanistan, reports Rachel Segal Hamilton
BJP: Why did you decide to photograph Iraq war veterans for War is Personal in the first place?
Eugene Richards: At the time, most of us who were questioning people didn’t buy [what we were being told] about weapons of mass destruction. It got to be crazy frustrating. I felt like that even before: after 9/11 I knew we were about to enter into 50 or 100 years of war, that this was going to be a pivotal point in changing all our lives – and it depressed me to death. I never went to Iraq and always felt I should have. Then the guys and women started coming home and I felt, I’ve got to do something.
BJP: What can you show about conflict through documenting soldiers on their return that you can’t when you’re out in the field with them?
Eugene Richards: Intentionally or not, in war photography there’s always an excitement there, that male thing of proving yourself, the sadness of defeat and losing your friends and the exaltation of victory. There’s a lot that isn’t discussed when you’re in the field. The main thing about being a soldier is to protect each other so there’s a veil around the reality. They take care of each other, they take care of you. It’s not their place to tell you how they feel.
BJP: How willing did you find veterans were to be photographed for the project?
Eugene Richards: When I started the project I tried to get anybody to talk to me – I wasn’t looking for the most damaged – but it was hard. People were very suspicious. Their mates were still there. I think now if you talk to people back from Iraq it would be different because it has turned out quite badly, with the sectarian violence and the increasing number of killings, but then opinions weren’t quite formed yet.
BJP: Where will you take the project next with War is Personal Part II?
Eugene Richards: The idea is to do it with people coming back from Afghanistan because that war is theoretically winding down now. Curiously there’s almost no attention to Afghanistan and these are guys and women who’ve served three or four goes in a very difficult place.
The situations and stories are different. People are going to come back to a failed economy where they don’t have much in the way of skill sets for making a living. Another issue is the dissolution or relationships. When people have been away for four years it’s not uncommon to come back and have nobody here. I’m also looking at a different way of dealing with it too. I’ve done a dramatic presentation of the first book. The first reading is in two weeks. I cut it up into a theatre piece, using verbatim words, that that could be used in colleges or high schools perhaps.
BJP: Do you plan to publish another book for Part II?
Eugene Richards: Books are hard. I had real difficulty raising the money to do the book and self-published it, which is fine. It sold out but was more by word of mouth. We never got a single review in the United States. We got wonderful attention in Europe but here not at all.
BJP: What do you attribute that to?
Eugene Richards: I feel that [in the US] we avoid the world; we don’t get involved. There’s little in the way of movements or resistance or questioning. I think it’s our culture. We want to be comfortable and have our things. Most of the time people don’t want to think too deeply. It’s not a popular subject and not a popular book. Facing that reality, I’ve got to seek alternative ways of getting the message out.
BJP: Have you already started exploring alternatives?
Eugene Richards: I have. I’ve made small films. I do a blog. You get 18,000 people reading this thing and the responses are interesting. Maybe as I do the stories I can put them up and use them as discussion points. You get a wider range of people, not only photographers, and people all over the world. I put a couple of pictures from the wake of Carlos Arrendondo’s son online and people were very involved with it, the difficulties, what it meant and so forth. I’m still exploring.
BJP: What does winning the Getty Grant mean for you and for the project?
Eugene Richards: When I first got it, I was very moved, and then I said, “Oh shit”. Now I’ve got the grant I’ve got to face the realities. Compared to the lives of other people I’ve got no complaints but in this day and age trying to do a “serious” book project is really hard. I’m about to self-publish again, a small book about the Arkansas Delta, and there was no way I could find a commercial publisher. But here I go again. I know it should be done and this grant is a wake-up call.
BJP: How will you get started?
Eugene Richards: Getting a grant like this is rare so I don’t take it lightly. Nowadays it’s getting tougher and tougher so you have a sense of responsibility but the thing about entering into a project is that you just don’t know. With the last project I didn’t know all the levels of complexity of people’s lives coming back from war and this time it’s the same. I don’t know what this project’s going to be. If I did, I wouldn’t be as interested in it.