Researching into participatory and collaborative projects has been something I have become quite interested in. There is a vast array of work out there that incorporates other people, not just the photographer to work on and present a final image.
The project I am looking at here is called ‘Blast Force’ by Lynn Johnson and although not easily see-able at first as being a collaborative project, I personally feel it is because of the nature in which the images have been constructed.
Blast Force is a project where Johnson has collaborated with veterans from the armed forces and created a series of portraits of them after they have come back from conflict with less than visible scars. Many of those fighting in the armed forces, often come back from war with some kind of trauma whether that is visible or not. In the case of most it can make readjusting to life a nightmare as they have been through such a traumatic experience.
Blast force—the signature injury of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—creates a pressure so powerful it can be seen before it is heard or felt. Soldiers remember confusion, deafness, slowdown, the feeling of being squashed. Positive and negative pressure waves roll through the body, shattering nerve pathways. And the soldier is never the same. They say they feel “crazy:” hyper-vigilant, sleepless, suicidal. They have language and hearing problems, memory loss and migraines. They anger easily. They abuse alcohol and drugs. Wives and lovers leave them, and their children fear them. Soldiers long for a missing arm, leg, eye—a visible wound that would command respect and understanding.
Johnson photographed several different veterans who had all found help and support at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which is a Department of Defence institute that serves over 360,000 men and women damaged by blast force injuries. In addition to receiving medical care and sophisticated imagery from physicians and therapists, the veterans and soldiers and invited to make masks. It has been said that:
“Making art cracks open the trauma and then knits the brain. The masks, like MRIs of their psyches, make the scars of blast force visible, a first step to healing.”
Below are some of the images from the project:
The project is collaborative in two ways for me:
- The veterans have been allowed to go out and create these masks and through them have then been allowed to incorporate their own feelings and the way in which they want to be viewed or understood through them. It’s a very clever process that has enabled them to work with the photographer as well as medical professionals, and to some extent may have helped them to progress on with their lives.
- In the series, the veterans have been interviewed or spoken to and the words they have said have been able to be used for captions for their images. Articles based on the words they’ve spoken have been used, giving them a sort of expression rather than someone else’s interpretation that may or may not be strictly correct. By giving them a voice and a chance to see and caption and edit, gives them a chance to be a collaborator on the project, thus in my opinion proving it is collaborative or even participatory to some extent.
I like the project in terms of how collaborative it can appear to be. The fact the veterans are involved in the project and have a say in how they wish to be perceived or understood is a main point for me because it highlights how important it is to work with someone, especially when you’re looking at a project that is quite sensitive in it’s nature in some respects. The masks also allow the veterans some privacy in some cases if they don’t really want to reveal their identity, so to some extent they are in control of the photographer and the resulting image.
I really like the whole project Johnson has presented and think it gives a really interesting and unique look into a topic too little discussed and bypassed by so many people. The way she has been able to work with the people and the organisations and the families is fantastic and has created a really heartfelt and important project that highlights what it is like to live after a blast force. It’s a really interesting and engaging project, that is fuelled by the way in which she has collaborated with those around her to present her final piece.