Posted May 25, 2016 by Cooper Point Journal in Arts & Entertainment

Photography, War, & Homecoming

Jim Lommasson’s Exit Wounds

by Ruby Love

When it’s done well, photography, like all art, is never not powerful. However, in my experience, it is a rare thing for a collection of images (particularly in a gallery setting) to push beyond the boundaries of art, grabbing the attention of random passersby with indescribable urgency. Our campus experienced this phenomenon earlier this year, with Prison Obscura at Evergreen Gallery, and Jim Lommasson’s Exit Wounds has brought it to us again, this time at Galerie Fotoland.

Exit Wounds is a massive collection of portraits, anonymously donated photographs, and interview excerpts made, collected, and arranged by Portland-based photographer Jim Lommasson. The show, whose full title is Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life After Iraq and Afghanistan, focuses on veterans’ experiences with reintegration after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lommasson interviewed and made portraits of veterans for the project, delving into the complex process of leaving combat and returning home to civilian life. The interview excerpts, displayed in the form of words printed on top of small photographs, convey a range of experiences and opinions about war, occupation, and American foreign policy. I was surprised by these interviews—they made me question my assumptions around why Americans join the military, how they see their roles as soldiers, and where they fall on the political spectrum.

Galerie Fotoland, for those readers who don’t know, is on the first floor of the library, around the corner from the Veterans Affairs office. I was acutely aware of this as we installed the exhibit, wondering how not just the content but the positioning of it would be perceived—if you’re going to the Veterans Affairs office, you almost can’t avoid looking at this exhibit. During the installation process, we were visited by several veterans who’d heard about the show going up, and wanted to take a look for themselves. As someone who has never experienced war, and has no relatives or friends who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, I worried about how it would come off for me to be talking about these images, so I chose to listen. I was surprised by how candid many of the veterans who came to see the exhibit were about war and its aftermath, and humbled to have them share a part of their experience with me.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Exit Wounds is its collection of anonymously donated images. Taken during soldiers’ tours of duty, they represent something rare and precious—a relatively uncensored, first hand glimpse at the American military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a student studying photojournalism, I wondered how these images—some of them graphic, some of them revealing of soldiers’ positioning and tactical approach—were allowed to be taken at all, not to mention transported back to the States. Many of the veterans who came to look at the exhibit told me about their own experiences taking photographs during war, and they explained that there were fewer limits on soldiers than on embedded press photographers.

That being said, the photographs were still donated anonymously, which says something about the military’s stance on these types of images, and those I talked to mentioned that it was easy enough to photograph “as long as you didn’t make a big show of it.” It is vital that these images are present, though, as it gives the audience a sense of the images that stick in the minds of soldiers—the moments that don’t leave them just because they leave the war. While it’s impossible to understand these moments fully if you haven’t lived them, Lommasson’s inclusion of these photographs gives those of us who haven’t a sense of the intensity and complexity of war, and help us to imagine what it must be like to come back to civilian life.

Exit Wounds serves as another example of the potential for images as catalysts for important conversations, and shows that gallery exhibits can have a real impact when they’re not exclusive spaces. They’re best when they’re not vague and unreachable, but when they grab you and invite you in, and make you question not only your knowledge about art, but also your knowledge about the world.

As part of Evergreen’s annual Memorial Day remembrance, Jim Lommasson will be giving a lecture about his work, organized in partnership by the Veterans Affairs Office and Photoland. He will be speaking in the first floor library lobby, Friday, May 27 at noon. I highly recommend seeing him speak and hearing the conversations that emerge from viewing Exit Wounds.