Portraits from a war

Jo Metson Scott’s photographs of soldiers who have spoken out against the Iraq war reveal the courage it takes to do so. Wayne Ford reviews her new book of the work

In a wood-panelled basement room with a low ceiling, a young man in a pale grey T-shirt hangs out. He reaches upwards grasping an unseen beam for support, his close shaven head nestling in the crook of his raised arm, whilst his gaze is downwards. Outwardly he appears like any teenager, passing time; but his story is far removed from the norm. Robert is a soldier in the US Army, and he is Absent Without Leave (AWOL). His portrait is the first in The Grey Line – and was the catalyst for the project as a whole – in which photographer Jo Metson Scott explores “the lesser-known story of the war in Iraq”, the story of military personnel who have a moral objection to their role in the country.

“When I started this project I wanted to find soldiers and veterans from the UK, where I am from, as well as in America,” states Scott. However, in the five years the project took to complete, the photographer was able to find just one British veteran, Ben Griffin, a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS), who was prepared to participate. Having served in the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan, Griffin was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a trooper in the SAS, and tasked with finding ‘High Value Targets’.

Increasingly disillusioned by his involvement in Iraq, and whilst on leave in the UK, he wrestled with his conscience before deciding he was unable to return. Informing his commanding officer of his decision, Griffin was fully prepared “to be reprimanded for his actions,” says Scott in the hand-written notes that accompany her sensitive colour portraits, and which combine to form a notebook of her trans-Atlantic journey. As it happens, in his commanding officer, Griffin found understanding, and was released from the army in June 2005 with an exemplary reference.

The real power of Scott’s portraits is their openness. Marked by a subtlety and softness, she brings a naturalism to her subjects that offers the viewer a universal level of understanding. In the final portrait in the book, Griffin is shown standing in the kitchen of his home; he makes direct eye contact with Scott’s camera lens, in an image that is full of personal reflection, and becomes all the more poignant as his story continues to unfold.

Like so many others in The Grey Line, Griffin’s story did not end with his discharge. He felt increasingly compelled to talk publicly about his experiences, questioning the legality of the war and the mission he was involved in. This would quickly draw the attention of the Ministry of Defence, and result in them obtaining a life-time injunction against him, which prevents him speaking out; an order he obeyed for a short period, before the need to talk about his time in Iraq returned.
Unlike Griffin, Robert – who was a radio operator and had never been in direct combat – came to feel his role in Iraq helped “facilitate death”, and this “deeply troubled him”. Unaware of other soldiers who may have felt or experienced the same views he held, and who may have offered support and advice, he felt his only option was to go AWOL. His sister reported him to the police; whilst the basement that Scott photographs him in belongs to an elderly pacifist couple, who gave him sanctuary for 30 days, after which time he returned to his unit – in uniform – knowing that he would then be classed a deserter.

In contrast to the earlier portrait of Robert (the only person in the book that Scott has since lost contact with) a second and later image, monochromatic in range, sees the teenager in his camouflaged uniform on the front lawn of a snow covered Indiana suburb in 2007. Here the signs of youth we experienced in the earlier portrait have gone, instead we see not the young man, but a soldier, wrestling with the moral dilemma, and the daunting prospect of a court martial.

“In Britain there was huge movement against the war in Iraq,” writes Scott, who spent a week visiting Robert in the Indiana basement, taking her portraits in the brief breaks between the young soldier’s stories. “There were so many people against it, myself included,” she continues. “Yet I hadn’t stopped to consider how a soldier would be feeling in a war that was so unpopular. Speaking to Robert made me wonder what I would have done in his situation; would I have the guts to speak out? To be branded a coward and a traitor? Would I have risked a prison sentence?… If you are contractually obligated to do something you feel is morally wrong, what then?” she asks.

It is this questioning attitude that brings a strength to her work. Scott does not present The Grey Line as an answer, or even a series of answers – although she may in her own mind have answered at least some of these questions – but offers the men and women that she depicts a voice, to put forward their views and experiences, and in that she begins a significant and ongoing dialogue.

Another soldier who applied for and was denied conscientious objector status was Kevin Benderman, who had served in the US Army twice; first between 1987 and 1991, before rejoining nine years later in 2002. “Have you heard the term ‘I cannot in good conscience do that?’,” he writes. “Well, that’s what it was for me. We weren’t fighting an army, there were no ‘weapons of mass destruction’. None of that stuff was there. We were just bullying the civilians. We weren’t fighting soldiers, we were just kicking down the doors of civilians’ houses and taking them out, and that’s not what I joined the army to do.”

Photographed by Scott on an Atlanta sidewalk, Benderman the former army sergeant appears isolated, the vacant streets heightening this sense of loneliness. An isolation made all the greater by his own family who, following his release from a 13 month prison sentence, and finally being discharged from the military for “bad conduct”, chose to turn their back on him. “They didn’t even want to hear my reasons for doing what I was doing and they still don’t.”

This family alienation is a common theme running through The Grey Line. Ryan Endicott joined the US Marine Corps in 2004, and is photographed with his bare back to the camera displaying a large tattoo that reads, Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned. He writes: “Every single person that I served with in the war found out about my testimony and have publicly said that I’m a liar, a bitch, that I’m full of shit, that I’m a fucking American flag burning, troop hating, fucking communist… it literally broke my heart.” It’s an opinion that appears to the viewer as the antithesis of the gentle man we see in Scott’s portrait.

In giving these soldiers a voice, Scott presents a sensitive and compassionate document of social significance that explores not only their lives, but what it was that came to change their minds on the war in Iraq. The stories that are told and that unfold on the pages of The Grey Line are unique, each marked by a powerful sense of strength, and yet at the same time we experience undercurrents of fragility. But together – and maybe this is the true power of The Grey Line – these often emotional and important stories bring affirmation to one another.

Wayne Ford is a designer and creative director who blogs about photography at wayneford.tumblr.com. The Grey Line by Jo Metson Scott is published by Dewi Lewis, £30.

 

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