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Foreverstan: Photographer Challenges Conventional Ideas About America's Longest War

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The setting is stunning at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass., which sits on more than 200 acres of former farmland overlooking the Nashua River Valley. It’s a stark contrast to the scenes displayed inside the museum: images of the U.S. military’s drawdown in Afghanistan, by photojournalist Ben Brody.

"There was an undercurrent in my photos of the sort of forlorn landscape of absurdity and alienation in the end of America’s longest war," Brody says.

Twenty-four photographs make up Brody’s Fruitlands exhibit “Afghanistan/Endgame.” But to appreciate them, you have to understand Brody’s background. Before he was a photojournalist, Brody served two tours as an army photographer in America’s other war, Iraq.

“A lot of my photos that are in this exhibit would be photographs that might be able to be released, but the context, the captions, the explanation of what the photographs really mean and the real story behind them — that’s where the military would have not released that, would have censored them,” he says.

That censorship was frustrating for Brody. He says the last straw came after four days of brutal combat at an Iraqi village held by militia loyal to Al Qaeda.

“Ultimately the soldiers managed to retake this village," he says. "My stories and photographs reflected that. And it was immediately dismissed by a colonel as being unreleasable because it was too negative. And by too negative, what he meant was that it wasn’t sanitized enough."

Brody left the army in 2008, and as a civilian, he headed to Afghanistan where he had the freedom to tell the stories he wanted to. It’s that work which is now on display at Fruitlands.

"So this picture, that at a glance looks like a picture that we’ve all seen a dozen times before of soldiers firing a big artillery gun and a big cloud of smoke coming out of the barrel … ,” Brody begins.

But Brody tells the real story in the captions next to the photos. There’s no intended target for those artillery shells. The soldiers are merely disposing of their ammunition before they go home.

"… So as the soldiers are taking turns firing these huge shells into the mountain, the sergeant major is shouting, 'All your buddies are working at Walmart!'"

Another photograph shows a July 4th celebration at Kandahar airfield. It’s a bizarre scene. One soldier sings the national anthem, while two other military figures stand with him on a flatbed trailer turned into a stage. A podium sits in the middle with a stuffed penguin sitting in front of a microphone.

"As the surge is ramping up, this is an incredibly violent summer for soldiers," Brody says. "Just five miles away from the airfield, soldiers are fighting an incredibly protracted war in literally the trenches, in the grape rows, which are trenches in Kandahar.”

Brody captures that side of the war too, in a photo of American and Afghan soldiers deep in those lush green grape rows. The grapevines are beautiful, but hide deadly land mines and IEDs. A number of Brody’s images are devoted to what he considers the unintended consequences of the military drawdown. In one photo, soldiers on base with time on their hands play war on a video game. In another, a soldier browses at a jewelry store. It looks like one you’d find in any American mall, but it’s at Kandahar airfield.

Fruitlands chief curator, Mike Volmar, says the surrealism of Brody’s images — and how they reflect modern war — is what makes them so appealing.

“They show a side of the Afghanistan conflict which certainly people have been hearing about for over a decade," Volmar says. "Get you down into the details, and hopefully enable people to better understand some of the experiences of the military personnel who are coming back home."

Brody doesn’t think the remaining U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will be coming home anytime soon. He points to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

“America certainly bears a lot of responsibility for that war that continues and will in Afghanistan as well,” Brody says.

All photos above taken by Ben Brody. Brody’s exhibit is open to the public at Fruitlands Museum, until June 21.

Our story was produced in collaboration with our partner, The GroundTruth Project. Read more at Foreverstan.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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