Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of hell's darker chamber
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in
(Joy Division - Decades)
Inspired by these lyrics and the unsettling fact that her son embarked on his first mission as a marine, Dutch photographer Claire Felicie created a photo book that portrays the soldiers of the 13th infantry company of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps before, during and after their combat mission in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Here Are the Young Men is a book charged with symbolism and raising an undercurrent of mixed emotions, trying to involve us on a personal level in order to start comprehending the aftermath of war on the individual.
Here Are the Young Men approaches the topic from three perspectives, in three chapters, each showing a different aspect of the soldiers' lives on duty. The first chapter, Committed, is the only series in colour, and it presents us with small landscape images of the soldiers in the field; black against the backdrop of a blazing orange sun we see the blurry silhouettes of figures on the move wearing helmets and holding weapons. Following this rather widespread view, the second chapter Armoured zooms in on the soldiers as they present objects that serve as their lucky charms - bracelets, coins, handwritten notes. These first two chapters serve, in a way, as prologue to the main course. The last section, Marked, is most captivating: On pages printed almost full-bleed, we see larger-than-life portraits of the marines taken before, during and after their time in the combat zone. The resulting triptychs, extreme close-up black and white portraits, raise universal questions about the consequences of war and at the same time dare us to scrutinise our own preconceptions when looking at the portraits: what can we really read from people's faces, and to what extent are we merely reading into them?
Because of the sheer size of the printed soldiers' faces we can examine the smallest details and, inevitably, start comparing them in the belief that war zones change people, that the inner scars must somehow find expression in the young men's faces. So we try to pin it on the transition from mischievous smirks and confident glances to sunken cheeks and deeper wrinkles, the mute and dark eyes, concealing from the viewer what they have seen. In the end, we cannot know the origin of the qualities that we observe in the soldiers, nor even what the images tell us about people we do not know in person. But it is the power of imagination that makes the images strong and constitutes their potential to serve as a mirror that triggers our own feelings, our own ideas about the toll that war takes on people.
Though these are valuable notions worth remembering, the book itself holds few surprises. The concept is nothing new (see, for example, Rineke Dijkstra's project Olivier from 2000-2003) and probably grows more from the personal need to deal with the issue than from the aspiration to find creative ways of showing it. One might even consider disregarding its first two chapters which, though they provide some sense of context, dilute the impact of the portrait series to some extent. Nevertheless, Here Are the Young Men raises awareness for the situation of young men who risk their lives in the name of peace in the war zones of this world, and the empathetic quality of the images forcefully underlines the photographer's claim for our loyalty and understanding towards them.
Here Are the Young Men is available for purchase from the photographer's website.