War on Terror: Inside/Out

Photographs from Christopher Sims and Stacy Pearsall turn the War on Terror: Inside/Out, as if showing us its seams. Sims documents American-made Iraqi and Afghan villages, used to train soldiers in North Carolina and Louisiana, in his series Home Fronts: The Pretend Villages of Talatha and Braggistan. Pearsall, a military combat photographer since age 17, presents the facts of her experience, daily life that is dark, but captured with elegance and expression, and deeply humanistic. We are allowed an extended gaze into these otherwise restricted worlds. Curator Mark Sloan at College of Charleston‘s Halsey Institute has met his goal “to plumb the ironies and contrasts for all I could get.”

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Christopher Sims: Jihad Lamp

The construction of Middle Eastern/Iraqi identities is varied through these disparate geographies. A few striking moments include: seeing the starkly outlined pink flowers and lit-up lamp in Jihad Lamp, then viewing luminous amber windows and undying flower arrangements in Tune In; fake gore on a real amputee and a smiling villager with a stomach wound in Fort Polk, Louisiana, then blood streaming from a shot-up car in There Will Be Blood. Other important pairings included a sign with a crescent moon pointing out undecorated wooden “Mosques” in Fort Irwin, CA and Camp Mackall, NC, then in red on an ambulance in There Will Be Blood; fresh clothes and green All-Stars of Insurgent in Village, then the platform heels, playfully feminine shoes, of two women who walk past a gun barrel in Snipers and Hijabs.

Many of Pearsall’s images show soldiers finding a moment of peace in an empty place. Her captions give further details of soldiers and events portrayed, as she makes memories of her friends and compatriots. In Tune In, soldiers are watching Iraqi cartoons in a home while waiting. She tells me that these soldiers have found a safe house and kindly asked the family if they could stay in one room. Windows often have tape and cardboard over them to keep from shattering during bombing, which Pearsall says is like an earthquake. Tune In was taken during a raid on Baqubah, as U.S. soldiers went methodically from home to home to run out the enemy.

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Stacy Pearsall: Tune In

Artifacts of the western world might be reminders of invasion, but are also tokens of hospitality and aid. Pearsall says that they often had large crowds gathered to receive school supplies, rice, clothes, and gasoline, but many soldiers also made individual efforts to help out, like one who started a shoe drive in his hometown. Looking at a woman in full black covering in Snipers and Hijabs, it’s easy to assume there’s some expression held captive, but Pearsall says they have style, they wear more make-up than she would. She says they have, “more culture than people are led to believe.” In Two Sides, the word ‘beauty’ on a magazine is reflected in the glass of a shop window as a woman soldier walks on a trashed street and a shop attendant glares at the camera. When asked what it’s like to be obviously American, Pearsall says “what wasn’t always obvious is that I’m a woman.”

In Sims’ Jihad Lamp we see the inside of a structure made to be invaded, decorated by the hired villagers who spend their days here. Village Residence reveals a dolled-up peep hole decorating a “Mosque” door and painted flower boxes; the painted face of an Iraqi woman is nothing but eyes. It’s strange that the veiled woman with her plastic child in Watching the Ambush acts as a patterned-clothing dealer, but a statue stands as the person in Suicide Bomber. Middle Easterners acting out their left-behind culture is one startling piece of policy that Sims exposes, yet the interaction humanizes and disambiguates the enemy. While viewing his work, I can’t help but recall the fake town in the new Indiana Jones movie, built to test nuclear weapons, and Tropic Thunder, where violence and its imitation are parodied. This exhibition is all the more timely at the advent of reform.

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Stacy Pearsall: Snipers and Hijabs

Christopher Sims is a professor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He was selected for PDN’s Photography Annual “Best Photography of the Year” in 2007 and 2008 and has received a national fellowship from the Houston Center for Photography, the location of his next exhibition.

Stacy Pearsall is the only woman to be a two-time winner of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Military Photographer of the year Competition. She has also been awarded by NPPA Women in Photojournalism Conference and the Atlanta Photojournalism Contest. She is now retired after ten years of service and resides in Charleston, SC, where she is the director of the Charleston Center for Photography.