"The military," Portland photographer Jim Lommasson says, "is an incubator for creating anti-war activists."
He planned to focus on the domestic lives of soldiers who made it back safely from Iraq and Afghanistan in a photo series called Exit Wounds (now on display at Blue Sky Gallery). As the son of a tight-lipped World War II veteran, Lommasson thought it best not to dig too deeply into the soldiers' experiences overseas. But the 50 soldiers whom the artist interviewed and photographed proved him wrong.
"They all wanted to talk about life during war," he says, "about what they did and what they lost."
The exhibition is a visceral punch. A towering monolith of images greets and overwhelms you when you walk into Blue Sky. The gallery's tallest wall is covered floor-to-ceiling with the 1,000 snapshots that Lommasson collected from veterans. Most of the 4-by-6-inch prints hang too high to see clearly. But peering at snapshots closer to eye level—as so many First Thursday patrons did, stepping close enough to make the shiny prints matte with mouth-breathing—you zoom into the side-by-side realities and mundanities of war. A Jeep fender caked with blood, friends playing air guitar, weapons practice, the beautiful face of a local child, a sunset, carnage.
On the other three walls, portraits of servicemen and women in their everyday environments hang above their accounts of wartime. The most affecting pairings have a photograph and text that are strikingly at odds—like the portrait of a carefree young father holding his daughter's hand at a carnival, with a quote below that describes brutal torture that "looked like a frat house gang rape."
Exit Wounds suggests that this generation of veterans packs a different attitude on the way home. They want us to know there is no dividing line between us and them. Anyone put in terrible circumstances might make choices they will have to explain for the rest of their lives.
The photography is secondary to the stories, Lommasson acknowledges. "I see it as an illustrated oral history," he says. "It isn't about flexing my muscles as a photographer. We need to hear what they have to say, not what other people have to say for them."
BY JENNIFER RABIN
SEE IT: Exit Wounds is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave. Through Jan. 31.