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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Lori Grinker


Lori Grinker was born in Freeport, New York in 1957. She attended the prestigious Parsons School of Design, located in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Grinker intended to be an illustrator. However, she registered for a course in documentary photography taught by fine arts photographer George Tice. As part of that course she was required to study W. Eugene Smith’s book Minimata, which documented the long term effects of mercury poisoning in the Japanese village of that name. Grinker was so inspired by the course and by the book that she switched her major.

While a student at Parsons, Grinker did a photo-essay about a nine year old pugilist which was published by Inside Sports. In the course of that project, she met another young fighter…a 13 year old boxer who she would continue to photograph for the next decade: Mike Tyson. Her association with the young Tyson and his trainer, Cus D’Amato, set her on a career path as a documentary photographer.

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In 1988 Grinker signed with Contact Press Images, the international photojournalism agency whose founding members include Annie Liebovitz and David Burnett. Her work has been featured in a wide variety of venues, including Life, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Newsweek, People, The Sunday Times Magazine (London), Stern and GEO. In addition to traditional photo-reportage (including the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001), she has created a number of long-term book projects. Her most recently-published project is called Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict.

Grinker’s coverage of the veterans of war began almost unintentionally. She was on a self-assignment in Israel in late 1986, just before the First Intifada, hoping to do a photo-essay on Palestinian-Jewish cooperation. Clearly, that project was soon abandoned. While in Israel Grinker visited a rehabilitation center for veterans of the Israeli Defense Force. It was called Beit Halochem, the warrior’s home. As she interviewed and photographed the patients she remembered the screaming man of her childhood. The germ of an idea for a new project started to grow.

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She wanted to explore the lives of combat veterans, but wasn’t entirely sure how to approach the project or how to delimit the scope of the idea. The idea didn’t solidify until three years later, when Grinker accompanied a group of U.S. combat veterans returning to Vietnam. It had been two decades since they’d fought their war and they were still traumatized by it. Grinker realized the story she wanted to cover wasn’t about war; it was about the reality that wars may end for governments, but they never end for the people who fight them. She wanted to document what war did to the warriors. Grinker was somewhat daunted by the scope of the idea; she thought the project might take up to five years to complete.

She was off in her estimate by a decade. The project took her fifteen years and brought her to thirty different countries and introduced her to all sorts of veterans of a wide variety of wars. Men and women, adults and children, volunteers and conscripts, professional soldiers and guerilla fighters who fought in world wars, civil wars, ethnic and tribal wars, religious wars, wars of liberation, wars of decolonization, wars of political ideology. She interviewed and photographed the veterans of ‘good’ wars and ‘bad’ wars, both those on the victorious side and those who were defeated.

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“Wars have no fundamental purpose,” Elvigio Pellitero told Grinker. Pellitero had served on the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil war. “What did we know of this war? It was like a lie, this war, little lies. We were ignorant. We thought we would probably die, that’s all. We fought, we won. If we had lost, it would have been just the same.” Grinker heard echoes of that sentiment from many of the veterans she interviewed and photographed, and it informed her work. She makes no pretense of objectivity in this project; it is very clearly and unabashedly anti-war. “We watch the reports from the front on television as if it were a spectator sport,” Grinker says. “But they suffer for us. They are our sacrificial lambs. Through this project, I hope their images and words will serve as a powerful reminder of the wastefulness of war.”

Her approach is radically different from that of combat photographers like Don McCullin or James Nachtwey. Even though those photographers may decry the brutality and horror of war, their photographs retain an aura of heroism and glamour and the thrill of adrenaline. There is no glamour in Grinker’s work. The heroes are indistinguishable from the cowards. Everybody is damaged, and there are no winners…only survivors.

Grinker’s project covers veterans of the world’s conflicts in reverse order, from the ongoing war of secession between the Tamil nationalists and the government of Sri Lanka to the remaining survivors of the First World War. She couldn’t possibly include veterans of all 150-plus wars and conflicts in the last century, of course; the project is limited to just 23 of them. She plans on producing a new edition of the project which will include a chapter on the veterans of the current conflict in Iraq.

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A project of this scope, not to mention the subject matter, takes a toll on the photographer. It takes incredible perseverance. “Patience is so important,” she says, “and while photography gives us instant results, a larger project takes a lot of planning and research. And life happens in between the work and it takes a lot of tenacity to keep focused on the larger goal.” Nor were all of the potential subjects cooperative. Not surprisingly, many did not want to be photographed and of those who did agree to have their photos taken, a large proportion refused to discuss their experiences. “Many people wouldn’t tell me stories,” Grinker has said. “…they said we’ve never told our own families; why would we tell you?”

Not only is the work itself difficult, but it must be funded. Grinker has said she spent at least as much time searching for funding for the project as she did actually doing the work involved. She also, of course, had to continue to be a working photojournalist during the fifteen years of the project.

The reward for her work is emotional rather than financial. The project has been presented at a series of public events at which Grinker often appears. There she has met a number of military families who have expressed their appreciation for her work; they’re glad that somebody has been paying attention to the wounded. All nations, it seems, like to keep their maimed veterans out of sight until it’s time for a parade. Parades are exciting, parades are glamorous and patriotic; stumps and scars and decades of night terrors, it seems, are not.