Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Soldier's Story

When Daniell Cornell of the Palm Springs Art Museum approached me about hosting Jennifer Karady for a residency, I was immediately intrigued. Jennifer's work is a powerful quest to share the stories that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan bring back with them which continue to affect their everyday. 

I was very happy to be facilitating the project and also saw the challenge in working with Jennifer to make an image here. How to find someone interested in entering into the kind of dialog Jennifer elicits in order make a great narrative image? Joshua Tree's proximity to the Marine Corps Strategic Command at Twentynine Palms was an obvious link and, at the same time, it seemed a possibly closed avenue. After meeting Jennifer in NYC and getting further background on her process, I started to identify ways forward. We agreed to start the recruitment campaign quite early on. Jennifer was doing another project in LA in early 2014 and so would be available to qualify people and come to the desert if necessary before her residency began in late March.

My role on the Board of the local Chamber of Commerce puts me in contact with the Marine Base and I had toured the facility and attended some events. We are lucky to have a community liaison of the likes of Kristina Becker who attends Board meetings, and I started with a meeting to brief her on the project. Kristina was immediately enthusiastic and went away to discuss with her team and consider how to move forward. 

I also identified people in the community who work with veterans - ranging from Mil-tree, a local non-profit working with veterans through the arts, to Copper Mountain Community College, our local institution of higher learning. I spread the word, armed with Jennifer's standard email edited for one important change - I had been informed along the way that Marines do not identify as soldiers. Text was edited appropriately although the project title stood its ground!

There were some great responses by folks in the community and much effort to assist the project though scant response from interested Marines. Jennifer also increased my apprehension by saying she wouldn't call interested veterans - she wanted to hear from them in order to ensure their interest. This was something I came to appreciate later on.

After some time, Kristina came back to say that the project had been well received on base and that she was briefing various unit leaders that would in turn talk to their troops. Pretty soon, some interested Marines were identified and Jennifer was invited to present directly to them a few days after her arrival in Joshua Tree. Jennifer was very enthusiastic about working with active duty Marines and I remained a bit apprehensive as to whether some candidates would emerge.

My concerns were unfounded - several Marines approached Jennifer about her project, some from the Base and some from the wider community, and she went straight into her intensive work process. First, she held telephone interviews to do some basic qualifying. One of Jennifer's chief concerns is to make sure the person is ready to tell their story and unlikely to trigger any negative outcomes through the process. Each qualified candidate then had an initial interview to get into their story and some of the dynamics around the project. Jennifer converted a corner of the studio into a recording booth and several Marines came round for discussions that lasted from 3-5 hour hours. It is then that I got to understand how daunting the process is for Jennifer. Conducting interviews, then reviewing the  entire recording to find excerpts and ideas as well as  to lead to the next round of discussions. Multiple rounds of discussions with multiple Marines - I did the math. 

Called away for some time on a family emergency, I returned to hear that Jennifer had selected the story she was going to focus on. The Marine is an active duty EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) expert who has seen multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was at the Base as a trainer. Jennifer worked closely with him to determine the structure of the image. Naturally, being an EOD expert, the story called for a simulated explosion - an element which set the tone for the production dynamic that then ensued. I immediately understood that location was going to be tricky. Jennifer got working with an FX pro who advised her that getting a County permit was going to challenging. So the unincorporated areas such as Joshua Tree itself and Wonder Valley were out.

Here again, my Chamber relationships came into play. Fist we connected with Cynthia Truitt of the Twentynine Palms Chamber who speed-networked us to several people with sites in that City. Off we went scouting. Then, I reached out to the Joe Guzetta, City Manager of Twentynine Palms, who had been a fellow Board member on the Joshua Tree Chamber some time back. Bingo - The City owned a large tract of land up against the iconic mountains of the National Park and they were willing to let us use it on the condition the land was restored to its prior condition. We scouted that location and were overjoyed to find several spots suitable for the shoot. Joe and his staff were highly accommodating in helping get the permit arranged and providing some on-site facilities for use during the shoot.

Jennifer continued on overdrive working with the FX guy on getting the explosion right - several videos of test explosions flowed from an LA suburb (the neighbors must be used to it).  There were also myriad other production aspects such as lighting, set and extras. Jennifer's shoots are akin to small movie shoots - an entire story told in one powerful narrative image.

A week or so prior to the shoot, Jennifer mounted 18 previous project images and associated stories on the walls of the studio. We welcomed the Board of the Photographic Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum for a viewing and discussion with Jennifer. A couple of days later, we held an open house for the community and Jennifer spoke about her work. The intense focus of the community when viewing the works was palpable and several people were overcome by emotion. Stories that needed to be told and heard. 

The next day, Jennifer worked with the Marine on some test shots using production spec equipment, both to get the positioning and facial expressions rehearsed as well as to ensure that the flashes would not trigger any strong associations or discomfort. All proceeded smoothly. The rest of the week was spent in high gear by Jennifer, attending to all the production details, continuing to refine the simulated explosion and shopping for props and costumes.

The shoot itself proceeded quite smoothly - all Jennifer's hours of crafting and attending to details paid off. I was not present again due to the family emergency and so cannot give further details. Fortunately, Chuck Mobley, former Director of SF Cameraworks, was able to step in and work with Jennifer on the shoot. I have seen the resulting images and am looking forward to seeing which one Jennifer chooses for the series. Jennifer will be having a solo exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum from December 13 through March 29 2015. The whole series will be exhibited in full 4' x 4' format along with the related stories. I look forward to celebrating with Jennifer and thanking her, and Daniell, for bringing this amazing project to the Mojave and to BoxoHOUSE.

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