More Portraits of Soldiers Before, During, and After War + Interview

Private Michael Swan, 20

About six months ago, we shared photographer Lalage Snow’s powerful series of triptychs titled We Are The Not Dead depicting the transformative faces of servicemen before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan. The 8-month-long project presented the evolution of these brave, young faces as they embarked on a physically and mentally wearing journey and eventually returned home with worn and sullen faces. The emotional and insightful series has since gone viral, offering a very personal perspective of the men and women who are stationed in war zones to a wide audience.

The series has clearly struck a chord with countless viewers, impacting the way they look at war and the ramifications beyond physical ailments. There is a psychological aspect to enduring great strife amidst combat that is evident through the eyes of Snow’s subjects. Each portrait reflects a physical and mental state. What makes the series all the more powerful is Snow’s inclusion of quotes from her subjects at each time she visits them for an updated portrait.

During his mission in Afghanistan, 20-year-old Private Michael Swan is featured saying, “Before I came out here I was like, 'losing one limb wouldn't be so bad' but now all I want to do is get back in one piece. I miss home so much – I hate being away. I used to want to see more action, but then I went on R and R and saw all my family and friends. Now I just want to go home.” Nearly four months later, upon returning home, Swan says, “Being back is strange. You are away for so long and you think about how you lived so basically. It makes you appreciate things a lot more. Makes you appreciate life more, but find I get frustrated easily and lose my temper. My family says I am a lot more aggressive. I used to be a really placid guy, you know, really hard to upset but now it is quite easy.”

We were lucky enough to get in touch with Lalage, who kindly shared these four additional images with us and answered a few questions. Be sure to read that interview, below.

Lance Corporal Christopher Burns, 23

How has the response to We Are The Not Dead been?
It’s peculiar. When I completed the project in late 2010, I couldn’t GIVE it away. Editors said it was repetitive and no one was really interested. I moaned about this to a friend who worked for ABC News in Kabul who loved the project but it was still another year before people decided that they liked it, too. When they were first published in the British press, I was sent quite a few malicious emails and SMS messages from people calling me a propagandist, a war junky, etc., which was hurtful and I took it really personally but at least it got people thinking and now most of the correspondence is positive. But lots of people have criticized my use of light – saying that I have clearly stylized the ‘during’ shot to make the soldiers look better. Ha! If only I knew how to do that! I have never worked with artificial light – least of all in the middle of a desert in Southern Afghanistan. The before and after shots were taken in an army barrack room outside Edinburgh so the light is cold and Scottish. The light in Afghanistan is very special and a world away from Scotland. I come from a school of photography which does not condone heavy post production methods and trickery, either.

Private Becky Hitchcock, 23

Did you notice a significant difference in the young men and women each time you visited them?
On a personal and psychological level, yes. Having got to know them so well through training, the change was even more marked and poignant.  I didn’t notice a change in their faces until I put the three together, though, and that was a revelation.

Are you still in contact with any of the brave men and women you photographed?
Yes, I’m still in touch with almost all of them and have remained friends.

How have they reacted to the triptych of their faces accompanied by their own words?
That period was a very formative time for me personally and the bonds made remain strong. I travel so much but Facebook, for all its sins, is a useful way of keeping the links and the banter going. One of the officers who was shot in the leg is getting married next month and I’m honored and humbled to have been invited to his wedding. As for their reactions – it was an entirely collaborative project and I ensured that everyone was happy to be included and, those who weren’t, had the right to bow out.

Private Dylan Hughes, 26

What do you hope that viewers take away from this series?
I really don’t know. When I set out to do a project I remain quite neutral and allow the subjects to speak for themselves. The photography is pretty simple so it is what the viewer chooses to read or see. This project was about making the Afghan war personal, I guess, and not just about numbers.

Lalage Snow website

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