“My aim here is to bridge the gap of understanding between those who have been through war and those who haven’t. It is about raising the level of debate that our veterans need all the help we can offer them when they return home to identify avenues to a life of fulfilling purpose after combat.”
- Ryan Spencer Reed
Ryan Spencer Reed (b. 1979) is an American photographer whose journey documenting critical social issues began in 2002, in east Africa. He worked in that region documenting the Sudanese Diaspora, entering South Sudan and Darfur over numerous years from regions where refugees sought shelter in both Eastern Chad and Kenya.
In late summer 2004, he returned home to find an audience for this work in universities, museums, and galleries throughout North America in the form of traveling photographic exhibitions and lectures. They became the cultural backdrop for symposiums designed to grapple with the issues facing the Sudanese people. The Open Society Institute and Soros Foundation awarded him with the Documentary Photography Project’s Distribution Grant in 2006, to help this work reach additional audiences. While exhibiting and speaking internationally on the subject of Sudan, Reed has photographed extensively on the hubris of power amidst the twilight of the American industrial revolution, which is touring in exhibition form.
Since Spring of 2012, Reed took on a long-term project on the modern incarnation of the Band of Brothers: 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne through training and a deployment to Afghanistan. This body of work focuses on these soldiers’ experiences through modern surveillance and tactics as they have shaped policy and changed the way the world’s superpower went to war.
The immersive photographic and audio installation was unveiled in its entirety at ArtPrize 2014 in the Grand Rapids Art Museum and was selected by the public as one of the top finalists out of 1,536 entries. More than 220,000 people stood in line to see Reed’s exhibit during a three-week period. This same body of work was recognized by Pictures of the Year International for World Understanding. In addition, Reed was recently voted the winner of the Leica Oskar Barnack Public Award 2015 by a wide margin. He was one of 50 photographers from around the globe shortlisted for the award out of 1,689 entries and one of only two from the United States.
Volume I: Preparation for War
Images are presented on walls assuming the shape of bulletproof barriers or gunnery positions foreshadowing all that follows the experience of training.
“Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms.” - Ernesto Guevara
I seek unique and extraordinary access on projects to which I commit myself. My cousin, who was an officer and company commander in the 506th, helped facilitate such an opportunity. Following an introduction to his commander, I spent nearly a year building rapport with the soldiers while documenting their training cycle. In early Spring of 2013, my embed to deploy to Afghanistan with the unit was authorized. I was initially drawn in by how little I understood of a soldier’s life despite having a close relative in the military. I was disturbed by how few Americans understood the wars being fought in our name. I wanted to learn more.
Growing up, I was keenly aware of the pride instilled in the men of previous generations in my family for having served in the military. In school, I learned our nation’s foundation was built largely on the graves of those unable to push back an aggressor. War freed a young America from the British Crown, and the war between the states ushered freedom for those America enslaved. World wars afforded us victory over global opponents and provided massive economic advantages. However, in modern times, our wars seem only to offer a hollow sense of meaning and economic purpose.
I am left to conclude that we are a warrior nation living in a time when violent conflict seems so unnecessary. I cannot help but feel as though identity, as embodied by the American male, is largely measured against his time spent at war. The notion of this caused me to both abandon my family’s tradition of military service and, in turn, to deploy to war alongside soldiers as a means of investigating this pervasive theme and how it has influenced my own life's pursuits.
Volume II: Dissonance
Perimeter imagery encapsulates a viewer becoming the focal point to widen the gap between the myths and realities of war through the soldier’s experience.
“Young men go to war. Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to. Always, they feel they are supposed to. This comes from the sad, layered stories of life, which over the centuries have seen courage confused with picking up arms, and cowardice confused with laying them down.” - Mitch Albom
These images chronicle the final deployment of the storied 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment - otherwise known as the Band of Brothers. The unit’s contributions to conflicts since World War Two have inspired many to join the ranks to serve their nation. The stories of men at war are heavily edited and designed to be a call to arms, luring the next generation of the warrior class. The stories are therefore myths, out of context at best, that perpetuate a sickness in society about the nature of manhood and even war itself as a rite of passage.
This deliberate packaging of the image of honor for one providing security for a nation extends only to the point of neglect once soldier turns veteran. Although we seem quick to point out to the electorate that “freedom ain’t free”, the willingness to spend the youth of our country on nation building in foreign lands seldom converts to the support many require once they return home. This neglect now manifests itself in markedly increased suicides, and everything from PTSD to spousal abuse is more prevalent for those returning.
In Afghanistan, I found a war that had an evolutionary impact on those fighting both at the individual and policy levels. Many of the soldiers felt disorientated by the discrepancy between the training they received and the mission they had been expected to carry out. The feeling that their service contributions lacked significance on par with those of their grandfathers’ was apparent in their frustrations of not being able to go on missions in order to make direct contact with the enemy on a frequent basis.
I found fragments of how the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with their impact on the American economy, have changed the manner in which the world’s superpower fights its battles. In the new age of warfighting, the nation’s populace will no longer tolerate significant loss of their young men and women. A willingness to sacrifice great treasure has waned, in part, because the objectives are not clear and therefore do not seem worth the cost. Governments are therefore restricted in their given country’s line of credit for war unless prosecuted at arm's length, with minimal force depletion, and loss of political capital. What seems clear for the moment is that, as a nation, we’ve lost the stomach for war as a new generation of soldiers, and society as a whole, must reckon with the dissonance between the myths of war and reality.
Volume III: Soldier’s Eye View
Images are presented on walls now reminiscent of the MRAP military vehicles from which they were taken - the windows of voyeurism and relative safe passage through a land feared by fallen empires.
“I think human society for tens of thousands of years has sent young men out in small groups to do things that are necessary but very dangerous. And they’ve always gotten killed doing it. And they’ve always turned it into a matter of honor and a way of gaining acceptance back intosociety if they survived.” - Sebastian Junger
Over the last thirteen years at war on the ground level, an expensive game of “armor before the bomb” has played out. Improvised explosive devices, shape charges, and the like were used with deadly results. In 2003, US forces rolled into Baghdad in soft-skinned Humvees only to be caught, in relatively short order, off guard and unprepared for the IED threat, one which migrated to Afghanistan as well. Massive investment toward mobile troop fortification, through up-armoring existing vehicles and creating new armored fleets, set in motion a vicious cycle of cause and effect. Every time coalition forces altered a vehicle to improve its defenses against a specific threat or size of bomb, their enemies improvised new methods for detonating devices with larger explosive force.
A policy lacking intestinal fortitude combined with the deployment of armored combat vehicles was perceived as cowardly by the enemy and ostracized the host population. The retreat into armored vehicles prevented direct and meaningful interaction between coalition soldiers and non-security force Afghans and created of a kind of sensory deprivation. These images represent the primary experience of those soldiers who left the wire on mounted patrols where the vast majority of time was spent within the confines of steel beasts roaring down the road like a stampede of giant alien armored buffalo.
The pictures illustrate distance between the coalition force and the Afghan people whose hearts and minds were once said to be the object of our military efforts under counter-insurgency doctrine. Inside, hearing is all but eliminated, vision is skewed where possible - usually experienced through some sort of targeting and surveillance apparatus displaying thermal images. The situation comes through a bit hazy, often interrupted in places by the bars and mud on windows, anti RPG netting, C-wire, or anything else strapped to the exterior. It is a landscape with certain important details redacted or too far from view.
Volume IV: Drone's Eye View
Images presented in light boxes emerging from the floor evoke the feeling of viewing scenes of aerial reconnaissance, positioned to give the vantage point of a peaceful and abstract war-zone from thousands of feet above.
“Each Javelin round costs $80,000, and the idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable.” - Sebastian Junger, War
Throughout military history, the high ground in warfare has always been coveted for the visibility of the battlefield that it affords its occupier. In the final throes of the longest war in the nation’s history, Operation Enduring Freedom, unprecedented investment in technological advancements, like surveillance, targeting, and drone assets, have afforded US forces the ability to remain farther from the fray than ever before while simultaneously skewing our perceptions of the costs of war. Employing drones on the battlefield seizes the high ground without having to put a soldier’s life on the line to take it.
The issue of forced voyeurism has placed the right to privacy in jeopardy for a population lacking the the ability to know how and when they are being surveilled. The practice creates feelings of mistrust further ushered into scrutiny in the wake of the use of drones for the extrajudicial targeting and killing of four American citizens to date and untold numbers of alleged enemies of the state. Long gone are the opportunities to identify our enemies by big speeches given in public by known detractors in countries whose borders are clearly defined.
Persons on all sides inherently understand there is little honor in the way this war has evolved doctrinally in the same way that Samurai must have felt when warring tribes began to use the projectile of an arrow released from a bow - no longer having to look into the eyes of their enemy while they killed. Perhaps soldiers conducting such warfare came home less consciously aware of the sacred nature of the lives they extinguished, less able to understand the full implication of war itself. Perhaps as fewer and fewer old men who experienced war with a blade exist in the world, the costs and risks to war seemed to have diminished along with the obstacles.
Captured from military helicopters while in transit between coalition bases, the aerial images presented offer a drone-like reconnaissance vantage point from several hundred to many thousand feet. They are reminiscent of a drone’s eye or satellite view. Roads, fields, rat trails, river beds, dwellings, and other strategic targeted areas are illustrated in detail, close to that of footage from surveillance assets.
Sudan: The Cost of Silence
Following nearly three decades of brutal civil war, the population of South Sudan lies shattered and strewn across the Central and East African landscape. More than two and half million people have been killed and another five million have been internally and externally displaced by the conflict. As of July of 2011, South Sudan has achieved its independence to become the newest nation on the planet. Since January of 2003, however, a new exodus flooded the western border region of Darfur in Sudan with displaced persons fleeing the same regime responsible for the southern tragedy. Despite the fact that the United States has formally labeled this diaspora genocide, the killing continues unchecked, threatening to shed blood on every grain of sand.
These are not the ruins of Rome, nor the tombs of Egypt. While the echoes of the past resonate, this community is extinguishing in the present. The story of Detroit is one of the most significant representations of a nation in transition. As a photographer, it is the place where I began an anthropological exploration in the spring of 2009 through a kind of architectural archaeology. This is a story about things left behind painted with a heavy heart - a story told amidst the death of the American Industrial Revolution.
Shades of Grandeur
A specter of hubris haunts the worlds superpower: attempting to remain the Arsenal of Democracy while it drowns in the wake of unsustainable business practices and policies; foreign and domestic. If this story is symbolic of a country’s misspent youth, then the revelation of peak oil, climate change, and the long overdue correction to the bubbles that formed following the Great War mark the harsh wake up call that is adulthood. These images are the product of a pilgrimage to rediscover values and the dream left behind in America, yet which somehow lingers in the dim and murky light of history. What remains are apparitions of empire: haunting, seductive, and alive with ghosts.