Do the portraits from HBO's "Alive Day" documentary compel us to see veterans more clearly, or just to watch HBO?

Given advances in medical technology and the tactical nature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, American combat troops are now surviving injuries that would once have been fatal -- and attracting the attention of visual documentarians as a result. Making portraits of the wou

Guest Column By Michael Shaw, Ph.D.

Michael Shaw Headshot 100x100Given advances in medical technology and the tactical nature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, American combat troops are now surviving injuries that would once have been fatal -- and attracting the attention of visual documentarians as a result.

Making portraits of the wounded, however, is a delicate matter. Damage is as much, or more, psychic as physical. Innumerable variables are in play regarding dignity, memory, and the reconstruction of post-combat identity. And then there are still other factors in front of those, including the context and purpose of the images themselves.

Over the past year, I have been aware of and spent time studying two sets of portraits of injured American Iraq war vets: Nina Berman's award-winning series Purple Heart: Back From Iraq and a newspaper photo feature titled Wounds of War by South Florida Sun-Sentinel photographer, Anastasia Walsh Infanzon. Because photographer Lori Grinker includes a few injured veterans in her distinguished series, AfterWar, I have been looking at relevant examples there also. (Full disclosure: Nina Berman contributes to my BAGnewsNotes blog.)

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders - Alive Day
© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Then, two weeks ago, I received an email announcing a new documentary series from HBO titled "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq." The program, which consists of individual interviews conducted by actor James Gandolfini with ten injured Iraq war veterans, premiered Sept. 9. According to the press release, "the documentary about wounded soldiers surveys the physical and emotional cost of war through memories of their 'alive day,' the day they narrowly escaped death in Iraq." Billed as "a multiplatform event," the project also features portraits of the veterans by the well-known photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Together these wounded veteran series constitute an important new sub-genre of war photography that seems to have sprung from three converging factors: 1) the continued escalation in Iraq, 2) recent leaps in medical technology, including fascination with cyborg-like associations, and 3) the fact that there were previously few, if any, photographic studies dedicated exclusively to portraits of wounded American war veterans.