War Dreams

War has a nasty habit of dehumanizing the participants, on either side, forgetting that every human everywhere feels, notices, hopes, wishes. In the moment, in the trigger-second of firing, all that is lost, again on both sides. Survival blurs into conditioning folds into fear dissolves into reaction. In her simple dedication to her substantially thoughtful anthology of poems Against Forgetting, poet Carolyn Forche writes, “For those who died/and those who survived.” Because it’s a simple law of physics: cause and effect, effect and cause. Every action has a pivot, a quantum causality, that influences everything on either side, and as a law of the universe no dictator or president, emperor or king can change this fact. Though many try, and therein lies the rub.

We want to believe in ambivalence. That somewhere a fortress of inconsequence and leveraging of responsibility supersedes scientific principles of order predating every single person delineating border lines and firing lines. Such a place does not exist. What is undeniably evident is that everyone on either side of an armed conflict is affected, that every side is a pile of people who feel, notice, hope, and wish.

Ivanka, 21, from Ternopil.

I was thinking that when I have free time I will go to the mountains or I will go to the seaside.
Ivanka, 21, from Ternopil.

I was thinking that when I have free time I will go to the mountains or I will go to the seaside.

It begins with a simple question: What do you see when you close your eyes? Photographers Jean Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni asked this of soldiers on a military base near the contested Donetsk, Ukraine right before their deployment to the front line of the Ukrainian war. The resulting “War Dreams” project is startling in its impact. A Polaroid from the chest up, modern day bust sculptures in composition, pairs with the individuals’ writing in their own hand of what they see behind closed eyes, their inner thoughts as they pause, adorned in military garb, guns nearby, ready to head out, perhaps to live and tell about it over coffee or beers, perhaps to die. Young men and women, 19, 20 years old, mid-twenties, 40s, a 74 year old man from Kiev…taking a moment to witness themselves before stepping out of the sightline of the lens to defend their country with their lives.

Orest, 50, from Khmelnytskyi.

Hone, daughter, family, peace and quietness in Ukraine. Stability, at least among relationships of people. Glory to Ukraine!
Orest, 50, from Khmelnytskyi.

Hone, daughter, family, peace and quietness in Ukraine. Stability, at least among relationships of people. Glory to Ukraine!

“We taped the polaroid on a notebook and asked them to write beneath what they saw while their eyes were closed. What fascinated us, besides the mere information and documentation material we were collecting and the opportunities of multiple interpretation of the texts and the images, was the rituality of the whole process,” Caimi shares. “…We understood that through this ritual we could reach the more fragile and human part of these persons, presenting them as people rather than soldiers. For a moment the absurd war reality could be suspended in favor of a connection with the truth, a link to a human nature otherwise sheltered under an armor, not only in a metaphorical sense.”

“The real world doesn’t take flight/the way dreams do,” writes Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska in The Real World. “Dreams have keys./The real world opens on its own/and can’t be shut.” And so it goes. In one photo, a man is thinking about his wife. Another, his mother. About tomorrow, about traveling to the mountains and seaside “when this is all over.” Yaro from Lviv writes, “Usually people measure time in seconds, minutes or days. Here I measure time with the lives of those who give them away, for others to live. How many more?” Quiet revenge, writes another. Denis, 19, from Kiev, “About mother.” Valeriy, 27, from the Khmelnytskyi region, “ The young do not know how to die. The young do not need the keys of heaven.”

Looking at a person with their eyes closed is like watching someone sleep–voyeuristic, a secret. And these images tether the viewer, not by the lure of a steady gaze or a complex scene, but by the sharing of a completely personal moment, a private and uniquely-owned patch of space and time that is intrinsically and universally human, nestled between the far off, removed, geopolitics that dominate headlines and anchor conflict with arms-length, detached agility.

Maryan, 24, from Ivano-Frankivsk

Mariam, 24. I was thinking about shelling of Moscow.
Maryan, 24, from Ivano-Frankivsk

Mariam, 24. I was thinking about shelling of Moscow.

And while the project set-up is straightforward–and indeed that is one of its strengths that allows the complexities of human nature and this war to ripple–their investment of self and articulation, is not. Indeed, for the Ukraine conflict alone, Caimi and Piccinni produced five different and distinct bodies of work, examining from multiple angles and considering the nuances of perspectives and outcome

Marrying photos and words is not new. From Jim Goldberg, in particular, to Jeff Wolin, Lewis Kotch, Duane Michals, Lorna Simpson, and on and on, the list is extensive. And that’s because when done well, each facilitates an expansion of the other, the words peeling back a layer or two of an image, the photo contextualizing the words. Caimi and Piccinni are especially adept at getting out of the way of the subject.

The simplicity of the question, composition, and unadorned words indicate trust. There is no need to explain or qualify the work–the individuals photographed will do that. When an artist is a conduit for humanity to explain itself, that is when concept and craft intersect. And it does, movingly here, and in other collaborative projects of theirs focused on contemporary issues of social justice through the crosscurrent of image and language.

Yaroslav, 22, from Lviv.

Yaro, codename Lys (Fox), 22 years old. Usually people measure time in seconds, minutes, or days. Here I measure time with the lives of those who give them away, for others to live. How many more?
Yaroslav, 22, from Lviv.

Yaro, codename Lys (Fox), 22 years old. Usually people measure time in seconds, minutes, or days. Here I measure time with the lives of those who give them away, for others to live. How many more?

Let Me In: Voices and Faces of Migration

The Western Balkan route stretches from Greece to Austria and during the 2015-2016 onslaught of asylum-seekers fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of migrants travelled the path to enter Europe. The 80 diptychs that comprise “Let Me In: Voices and Faces of Migration,” are self-portraits and hand-written letters gathered in the improvised campsites, city parks, and roads leading to the border fences along the way. The artists asked the individuals to take their own picture using a remote control and to then write a letter about their journey or themselves or their wandering thoughts.

Language: Farsi

I am Mohammad Sadegh Rezaii Afghan citizen. For 5 years I lived in Iran, unfortunately the behavior of the Iranian authorities has been very humiliating. They never issued us the residence permit e that situation posed so many restrictions. Moreover one of my children has medical kidney problems, he has the Neurogenic Bladder and in Iran is impossible to cure him. For these reasons we were forced to leave to Europe and we hope we can find help. We thank for the hospitality and the human manners all the European countries.
Language: Farsi

I am Mohammad Sadegh Rezaii Afghan citizen. For 5 years I lived in Iran, unfortunately the behavior of the Iranian authorities has been very humiliating. They never issued us the residence permit e that situation posed so many restrictions. Moreover one of my children has medical kidney problems, he has the Neurogenic Bladder and in Iran is impossible to cure him. For these reasons we were forced to leave to Europe and we hope we can find help. We thank for the hospitality and the human manners all the European countries.

The handwritten word, an unspooling of line, space, and dot is a composition unto itself, separate from literal meaning. The words–written in Farsi, Urdu, English, Pashto, Arabic–are plow lines across the page. The content swirls with stops and starts of black on white paper, like the maplines that curve and straighten, curve and straighten across land. We stop at the end of a thought or page, at a border, at a wall. One letter is simply the word “Home” in Arabic, and a square with a small rectangle at the bottom center as door, a triangle on top.

The translations of the letters are included in the project, but in a way, they aren’t necessary. Again, the photograph tells what we already know. We are people, they are people. They are leaving home, they are looking for home. One writes in Pashto, “The journey to Europe is like gambling with life.” Another, in Arabic, left Turkey with 30 people on a 10-person dinghy…”This is my story. Thank you,” he ends.

Truth in photography will be debated until the end of time, this supposed literal medium that is really anything but. “Truth is rarely straightforward. It is moving and changing, and if you try to freeze it, that is done just for your own sake,” muses Caimi. And usually not very effectively. Art is presenting an angle of perspective with a piece of the world that then the viewer can interpret for themselves. The self-portrait approach engages the subject as partner in the telling of their story, and also introduces dignity into the conversation by relinquishing some of the composition control to the individual. Positioned interpretation and presentation of the migrant situation the artists noticed in the media, depicting an “indistinct flow of people, an anonymous mass…an ever-repeated message which was losing any connection with reality and rapidly and sadly becoming a stereotype rather than a news report,” is what fueled Caimi and Piccinni to follow the Balkan route themselves.

“Truth is rarely straightforward. It is moving and changing, and if you try to freeze it, that is done just for your own sake.” - Jean-Marc Caimi.
Language: Urdu

In the name of God, hello I am Mohamed Omar Bashir, from Momen Ejensi, where there’s war. For this reason I left my home. It’s three years I am in travel for Europe. The day 10th in Bulgaria they took my fingerprints and now I am in Serbia, I don;t know where to go, maybe in three days I leave to Italy or Germany.
Language: Urdu

In the name of God, hello I am Mohamed Omar Bashir, from Momen Ejensi, where there’s war. For this reason I left my home. It’s three years I am in travel for Europe. The day 10th in Bulgaria they took my fingerprints and now I am in Serbia, I don;t know where to go, maybe in three days I leave to Italy or Germany.

“We are convinced that fear for the stranger mostly comes from ignorance,” continues Caimi.  Establishing eye contact with the viewer is the anchor of the project, a beckoning to see, a face-on suggestion of looking in the mirror, combined with the truth of one’s own telling of their story in their handwriting, isolating a moment of their choosing. The scatter plot of memories and moments is all any of us has, wherever we come from, wherever we are, wherever we’re going.

I ask them about visibility, both in photography but also connected to an artist’s attempt at unveiling a piece of unencumbered truth. I ask if it’s possible to see truth separate from conditioned bias filters. I’m asking in general, but am also thinking about the role and responsibility of producing photo stories in conflict situations, like they have in Ukraine, and extending from the Syrian war. “We could spend nights drinking and trying to get a solution,” is part of Caimi’s response. I smile. And he’s right as he continues discussing the nonobjectivity of truth, the artists’s search for awareness. “But it is the will to see that has to be triggered,” he states. I linger on that line a while. Yes. Motivation has to be present.

A photo can elbownudge a person thousands of miles away to see something in another, a familiar expression, a gesture that links strangers and transcends boundaries and cultures. Every day, in every imaginable way, from clutching guns at front lines to walking thousands of miles to waiting in hospital waiting rooms in any country anywhere to looking for jobs to losing sleep wondering how to better the lives of our children…they as we, are all trying to save our lives.

Kirsten Rian

Kirsten Rian is widely published as a journalist, essayist and poet. Her work has appeared in magazines, international literary journals and anthologies, and she is the author of two books. Her newest book, Life Expectancy, was released in 2015. She has led creative writing workshops both domestically, as well as internationally in locations like post-war Sierra Leone and refugee relocation centers in Finland, and with human trafficking survivors, using creative writing as a tool for literacy and peacebuilding, and locally is a volunteer language facilitator for non-native speakers.

JEAN-MARC CAIMI

Jean-Marc Caimi is a French-Italian photographer and journalist, he works as a freelance for Redux Pictures. His pictures mostly cover humanitarian and social topics. In parallel, his career follows a series of intimate and more personal projects; in 2011 these photographs were released as a book, “Daily Bread” (T&G Publishing). The same year he also published the book “Same Tense” (Witty Kiwi Books) with a series of images shared with colleague Valentina Piccinni and the same team of two has seen their project “Forcella” published in 2015 (Witty Kiwi Books).

Some of his latest documentary works both in solo or in duo include stories about the mentally ill convicted, the revolution in Ukraine, the daily life of Mafia ruled neighborhoods in Naples, the consequences over people and environment of pollution in contaminated areas in Italy, religious pilgrimages in the era of Pope Francis, the veterans of the war in Libya, the human rights violation in Azerbaijan, and many more.

VALENTINA PICCINNI

Valentina Piccinni is a Italian photographer and art critic, born in Bari (Italy) in 1982 and currently lives in Rome. She deals with fine art and documentary photography and works as a freelance and contributor photographer for Redux Pictures.

For several years she has focused - both photographically and theoretically on the themes of the self portrait and the body. She has a degree in art criticism with a thesis on the American photographer Francesca Woodman and the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. In the last years she has been dedicated to documentary photography covered social, environmental, and religious issues.
Her reportages have been published in magazines, newspapers and web magazines worldwide.

For more recent work, please visit Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni’s collaborative website.