Interview: Jeremy M. Lange – The War at Home

I first met Jeremy M. Lange at a lecture we were both attending at ICP in 2006. We’d corresponded by email before, and he somehow recognized me in the crowd. I left New York later that year, and shared my last meal in the city with him. He continued freelancing in the city for a while before moving to North Carolina, producing along the way a strong and varied body of work, ranging from (legal) kidnappers for hire to Mexican presidential politics to barbershops to religious faith. His recent project, “The War At Home” is a wide-ranging piece covering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from the perspective of those in the US. Do yourself a favor, and spend some time on his site. I asked Lange if he’d be willing to share his perspective on “The War at Home” over email. The discussion is below:

dvafoto: First, for our readers who might not be familiar with your work, where are you based and what publication do you work for? What sort of time on the job do you have to work on personal projects? How open is your publication to your story pitches?

Jeremy M. Lange: I am based in Durham, North Carolina, my hometown, which I returned to in 2007 after 3 years of school, 6 months in Mexico, and 3.5 years in New York City. I have a slightly odd arrangement in that I am a staff, or contract photographer, for the Independent Weekly, an alt weekly that covers the Research Triangle area of NC. I work 6 months a year guaranteed for them, one month on, one month off, and freelance the other 6, but I am able to take freelance jobs for all 12 months of the year, provided that I have all my responsibilities taken care of for the paper on the months I am on. The Indy is great in many ways, but especially in that me and the other photographer have almost complete artistic freedom in how we shoot the stories we are assigned and we get a little more time to invest in denser stories because it is a weekly. Deadlines do build up, but we have the ability to work our schedules out as we please as long as everything is done on time. Also, we can pitch stories at will and with a good argument, they tend to run them, as long as the story fits into the general guidelines of the paper, news, social justice, culture, it is pretty broad. Personal projects are much more easily blended into the paper than in others I have heard of. It can still be hard to find the time, and money, for personal projects, but that is always the case it seems. I think it falls more on you to make that time than anything else.

As a freelancer, I work a lot for the New York Times, who I have been working with since I lived in NYC and ran around for the Metro section, RIP, several days a week. They were the first real paper I worked for and have been great to me over the last few years. Thanks.

Other than that, I fill out my schedule with other editorial jobs, band shoots, portraits, whatever comes down the pipe. I think in smaller markets we are all forced to generalize a bit, but it is fun in that I learn new things from shooting different types of stories all the time. My background is in news and documentary, but I really enjoy shooting just about anything, with a few exceptions. Challenges keep you on your toes and I like the idea of photographing James Taylor one day and Christmas tree farms the next.

What got you started on “War at Home”? When did you know you were on to a bigger story with so many different threads to follow?

I met a soldier named Kristian Hofeller when I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2006. A package was misdelivered to my apartment and I rode up the street to drop it off at the right house and while speaking to the lady who answered the door, she mentioned that her son had just gotten back from Iraq. I asked if he might want to talk to me about it and take some photos, and I gave her my number and he called me couple of days later. We met at his house and drank some coffee and talked a little but he seemed sort of uncomfortable in his mom’s house so we went out to his truck and he basically broke down the last 5 years of his life to me. 1st responder to the WTC, off to Afghanistan, got in some trouble there, back home, marital problems, divorce, back to Iraq, back home… it blew my mind. He must have talked for over an hour with me just sitting in his truck listening and saying nothing really, I mean what the hell did I know about that? He got in some legal trouble while back in the US and therefore could not get a job, or at least a decent one, so he was considering going back to the military fulltime, he was on Reserve, or with a private contractor. They, the contractors, were offering him big money, he came from a blue collar family, but he did not really want to go. He had lost his wife and friends because of the war, but he really had no other options. We smoked and sat in the truck and he talked and then I went home, saying we would get together soon and shoot some photos. I had no idea what to do with what he told me, so I wrote down as much as I could remember, this is why an art degree can be a disadvantage, I should have taken notes, but I got it down for the most part, I like to listen.

We met again a couple of weeks later and went all the way out in Long Island to shoot some guns with an Army buddy and an older guy from his neighborhood. He would not really let me make any photos of him, but I got a shot of an Osama bin Laden target in a sand pit that has stuck around through all the edits, as well as one of his truck with a backwards “American Hero” emblem in the windshield. So I shot some really cool guns and we talked a lot, Kristian, me and his Army buddy, and then they took me home. We never talked again, he did not return my calls after that, not sure why, but I heard he went back to Iraq not long after. It stuck with me but I was trying to hustle in NYC and that was it for a while.

Not long after I got back to NC I shot a NYT story about a private contractor killed in Iraq, Brent Gray. We went to the grave with his wife and sister and some friends and then to a bar where we met some other guys who had served with him. I was so interested in what they were talking about and how little I knew about it. This is 5 or 6 years after we invaded Afghanistan and 3 after Iraq and I knew next to nothing about what people here were going through. I am not from a military family, but I have always been interested in it, the guns, the adventure and was about one stamp away from Marine basic training after high school. So I started looking around to find stories related to returning soldiers and other aspects of the war’s affects on the country and realized I had a huge pile of ideas.

Your “War at Home” project is pretty far-reaching. What ties it all together? What’s it about?

It is far reaching, sometimes too much, maybe. I am overwhelmed with which way to go, what can I get to, what is photographically explainable? But since this is about a constantly evolving, ongoing story, it seems best to me to just shoot it all and figure out the real specifics later. I am not a super planner, I like things to evolve organically. I do a little research so I know what I am talking about and then I just go and trust that I will get the shots I need.

[The project] is about the USA in a time of war, the culture, the iconography, but more specifically about the people who are fighting and what happens to them when they get home. This is a volunteer war, it is so easy to be distant from what is actually happening over there because we are mostly disconnected from anyone who is actually fighting. It is mostly fought by children of soldiers, who were themselves children of soldiers. Military families. I realized I knew no one personally who was fighting and I wanted to know, as best I could, what it was like to do that, how it affects you and what are the possible outcomes when you get home.

What does it say of us, as a country that we can skip past the headlines and go on to the gossip while families are losing kids? They are kids, younger than me mostly, and I wanted to feel it and understand it. I realized I really gave a shit about what the families and soldiers and Marines were going through and this is how I could show them that I cared and hopefully show others what no one else was showing at the time, that it hurts to have family members go to war.

Why photograph this project this way? Why not go to Iraq or Afghanistan? Why shoot it now?

This was the best way for me to get at the knowledge I desired and tell the story I thought was important and under covered. I am not in a position to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I have a wife and 2 young kids and as much as I have always wanted to go to photograph war, it would be selfish and self indulgent, if I could even pull it off. It needs to be done and there are great people doing it, risking their lives to make us see the costs of war, but it is not my time or my story–over there, I mean. We need to see that side of it, but I think we really need to see the coffins coming home, too. The devastated families, the injuries. But we also need to discuss that maybe it is for the best, all this sacrifice. Perhaps it is the “right” thing to do. I am not sure, so I am trying to find out through the people who are there and what I can learn through talking to and photographing them and what is happening here, at home.

Some people come home happy and whole. Not unaffected, but not overly damaged, feeling that they did the right thing by their moral compass. We need greater dialogue and this is my small way to contribute. Now seems like the best time to be talking about it, but perhaps not the best time to look at it all. The wars are ongoing and not going to end soon, so perhaps this is recording history for later analysis, but I do think it needs to be out in the open, to make everyone think about it. So few are really thinking about the effects of it all, I heard some one in a coffee shop say, “Oh, there are still troops in Iraq?” the other day. Seriously? People are dying and so few are paying attention. I am guilty of it to on occasion, the passing by of a story about another bombing in Iraq, but we cannot let it go like that, it is far too important to our future and to the lives of those fighting.

What’s the response been to your project? Editors? The readers of your publication? The people you’ve photographed?

Editors have been encouraging and interested, but I have also heard the “this is great but no one wants to see military funerals” line. I do not remember the last time I saw a photo outside of Dover, and that is recent, of an Iraq or Afghanistan casualty coming home. It all happens in small towns and they care, and maybe we all do, but we do not see it very often. When the Indy has run the photos, I have gotten nothing in response from the public. But I do get nice notes from the families of those soldiers whose funerals I have attended, and that is of the utmost importance to me, respect.

It is a really hard thing to call and ask if I can come and photograph the funeral of someone’s child. I always expect them to say no, and I am fine with that, I probably would too. And they do, I get about a 50% refusal rate. And I always ask. I do not want to be there if they do not want me there. I have been to a large funeral where all media is invited, at a distance, but I want to be in there, close and for the family to want me there, so I can make photos that take you as close to the emotion of the moment as possible. Standing 100 feet away with a long lens is just not the way I like to work, nor the way for me to make the photos I feel are important to make at these events.

Here is a story to explain what I mean: one father, Scott Taylor (who is the father of Spc. Joel A. Taylor who was killed last year by an IED near Mosul, Iraq) told me I could come, but was hesitant. I went anyway and photographed the whole thing, including the graveside services. Afterwards, I introduced my self briefly and he thanked me for coming. A few days later, I sent him prints of everything I had shot, as well as the url for the slide show I put up, I always do this for the families that let me come, and he called crying from the fire house where he works. He had hired someone to photograph his son’s services and the guy had stopped out of respect when the coffin was carried from the car. I had the only photos and he was so thankful that I had been there. We email now and then and whenever a photo related to Joel runs somewhere I send him a copy.

So, from the public, very little response, although I had one of the prints in a juried show of mostly more folky type of art and I like to hang around the print and see what people think. One guy thought it was really distasteful and disrespectful to show it. I disagree, but there you have it.

Families and service members have been supportive. I went to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune to photograph recovering Marines and before I got permission they went through the project on my website and let me in, saying that it was a good representation of what was happening, casualties and all, it was honest whether or not they agreed with all I was saying, which they did not, but they did get past that and let me roam around the Battalion for a couple of days.

On your site, you present “Dissent” first. Why?

I wanted to start the chapters more generally at first, and some the earliest related photos were of protests, so I went with that. When I feel I am done, no idea when that will be right now, the sequence could change. More personally, I think at first I was a dissenter, mostly, and the protests were an easy way to get that emotion out, but now, I do not know. I am against people dying, and people killing each other for no good reason, but I am not a pacifist. I think we should work towards the ideal of no war, but there are times when there is no choice, both on a macro and micro level, it is unrealistic. I believe in self defense and at times perhaps that is a form of offense, but you need to be honest about that upfront.

Getting into Iraq was a lie, but now what? This project is not about right or wrong in the general sense of whether we should be there or not, it is about the individuals who define the time, soldiers, marines, protestors, supporters, everyone.

Can you talk about some of our photographic influences in the project? I see more than a few glimpses of Fusco’s work, especially the RFK Funeral Train book, and a substantial topical (though not stylistic) reference to Todd Heisler’s “Final Salute”?

Paul Fusco’s “Bitter Fruit” series comes to mind in the funeral sequences, but I do not think I ever considered it while making the decision to try and photograph that part of the series. Heisler is the standard to which access should be judged. I am always in awe of what he managed to gain access to, with such respect and directness. This is more stylistic but… Chris Morris’ physical distance, but emotional connection to subjects. I feel his emotion through photos taken from farther away than I would like to be.

I want the viewer to be in the moment, but feel as I do, as a grudgingly welcome outsider, so I looked at some more “fine art” approaches and have probably stepped back physically from my usual approach, but that is also the subject matter dictating at times. I feel like I have the right to be there because I care, but at the same time I am a total outsider. It is odd at times to consider what I, or any other photographer is doing in certain situations. It can be surreal.

Peter van Agtmael has worked in a somewhat similar vein, but his look is different and his connection is as well, he was there, in country with many of the men who he returned to photograph in the US, that is probably as thick as it gets. He is more an example of how to do it well, than an influence.

Anthony Suau helped me realize that perhaps people would allow me to photograph the worst day of their lives.

How was access throughout the project, particularly the funerals and military installations? Was access better or worse at the start of the project? Before or after Obama’s inauguration and the change in rules governing photography of returning war dead?

Access to the funerals is hard. I always ask, so at times you just have to let it go, either because they say no, or no one answers, I am not going to be that guy hanging around making an awful day worse. But honestly, the military has not been so bad when it comes to what they dictate. Deployments and homecomings are more or less open, even on base, if you are a member of the press and I know several of the Public Information Officers, so that is not too bad. They, the military, do not control access to funerals. That is up to the family. I was aggressively questioned by some officers at a funeral early on in the project and I told them the mother of the soldier had asked me to be there, this was in the funeral home for the viewing, and when they asked her she told them to leave me be. That was it, end of story.

Dover was off limits for a long time, but once the fallen soldiers leave there, it is up to the families. I was at the arrival of Cpl. Joshua Blaney at the airport in Charlotte in 2007, his father told me I could come and the powers that be respected that and let me do what I needed for the most part. Cpl. Blaney’s family were very happy to have the photos even though I can not imagine ever wanting to look at them if I was in that situation.

It really has come down to the families, as it should. If they want you there, that is pretty much the end of the story, it is their child.

I have a few topics that I want to cover that will be harder to get at, but I am finding different ways to go at it as my skills with gaining access and information have grown over the time I have been working. I have zero background in journalism before starting to make documentary photos, I was a carpenter for 6 years after high school, so I am learning as I go. It can be really hard to be turned down over and over when you believe your intentions are good, but I think that is part of the game in this line of work. Access is everything was a line a mentor of mine always gave us, the pictures are the easy part.

Has your own perspective on the war changed as a result of the project?

I talked a bit about this before, but I am not anti war, nor do I approve of being lied to in starting a war. This is really about the people fighting and us as a country more than about how I feel about the wars as foreign policy. I was asked if I was against the war in Iraq by a father who son’s funeral I was asking to photograph. I told him I was against his son dying.

What’s missing from other coverage of the wars?

This is probably above my head as a question, but now the coverage is good if you go looking for it, take information from multiple sources. Reporters and photographers are getting the stories out, we, as the public, just need to read them, look at them and discuss what we find and question it all. I do think that the American public should see images of dead US servicemen and women, but it is so complicated by family wishes and that is a hard argument to make, to go against the wishes of a parent or spouse in the name of freedom of the press. It can be made, but it is tough.

Still, if you want to see how it is and want others to understand as much as they can, it is the only way. It is easier to skip 1000 words on the loss of a US soldier than not look at the above the fold photo. I think the dialogue would increase about why we are there and what we should do now.

What’s missing from your project (from lack of access, etc.)?

So many things. I have a very long list that I hope to be whittling down. I went to 8 funerals over the last 2 years and feel like that is not something I want to do anymore, as least for the project, but if they come and unfortunately I think they will, I would be honored to go if the family will have me. Pay respect. I want more personal stories, individual experiences, as opposed to events like deployments. I will go to all of them that I can, you never know, but the focus will be individualized in the coming year. I have not really touched on the seriously injured, that is a big part I am missing.

Good stories, are they out there? Went to war, felt good about it, came home and got back to life. Hard to photograph, but important.

It is so broad, at some point I may have to cut down the list to be realistic, but I am open to all of it right now. I would like to travel around the US for some more stories, but this is all out of pocket so I have not done it too much, but I am planning on that for the new year for certain sections, it has been relatively easy to do this mostly in NC, with several large military bases here.

I took a break for a bit the last few months. I photographed a couple of families whose loved ones committed suicide after returning from Iraq and it was really hard. I came home and sat by myself for the rest of the day and night. After 3 days of listening to the stories of these guys who just could not find the strength to continue after their tours, I had nothing to say. It felt so silly, I mean what had I done to be feeling so disconnected to everyone, the parents were the ones really going through it, but still, I needed a break to refocus and took some time to shoot other things, but I feel ready to really try and find the missing elements of the story.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about with your project or the issue at hand?

Ideas, if you have them, send them my way. If anyone knows someone who would like to talk about their experiences in either war, Iraq or Afghanistan, with me and work on some photographs, please get in touch, I am open to all possibilities.

I really feel like we need to keep talking about the consequences of the wars, especially now as we enter a new stage, with the surge of troops heading to Afghanistan and our newish president taking over on his terms. It remains to be seen how Obama will deal with what he has been handed but I do think his ability to think things over before acting is a positive development.

No matter what you think of the war, or if they should be fought, we should support those who are over there. You do not have to agree to feel some sense of responsibility to those who are fighting. Dissent and discussion is what this country is all about, so disagree, argue, but have some empathy for those who are losing their sons and daughters.

What photography has gotten you excited recently?

The list goes on but those are the 3 off the top of my head. I go through stages where I look at a lot of people’s work and that can be good, but sometimes I find it really distracting and it can lead to me losing faith in my own work and follow trends, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, instead of pursuing my own approach or vision on the story. It goes back and forth.

I have been a bit burnt out on photojournalism lately, which is odd since I think this is a new golden age for photographic storytelling. The paths and approaches to what we call “documentary” work are so open now for exploration, even as the ways to fund it all are shrinking. But I am tired of seeing the same language used, and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I frequently see compositional tricks and techniques used over and over, without the content to drive the photo to any real height. Maybe that is just growing pains and we will all get past it. I hope so. If we just shake and repeat we will all be out of a job.

That being said, there are many people producing amazing work, both for the dailies and in long form projects. It seems that every time I look around on the web, there are 2 or 3 more strong stories out there that combine excellent research with imagery that stops you in your tracks and allows questions to be asked and furthers the conversation on the topic at hand. There is certainly no shortage of excellent photojournalists/ photographers working hard to get stories told.

Are you working on any new projects you can share with us?

I tend to focus on one story at a time but I have been researching a couple of things and did start on a project about reenactors. It should be fun, different format, more like 6×7 and another stylistic difference that seems to be where my work is going right now. Also, it is lighthearted and just fun to do.

What are your sites/blogs/etc.?

Portfolio, Blog, Archive. This project can be viewed under the “Projects” tab on my portfolio site. I have also added a downloadable pdf to my website of the short book I put together to take to NYC next month of the project. You can find it under “downloads” in my website menu bar if you are interested.

Thanks you guys, it means a lot to me that you took the time to ask, listen and look.

4 Responses to “Interview: Jeremy M. Lange – The War at Home”

  1. Anonymous

    your story on kristian hofeller was good but you needed to validate and verify his stories before you post it. he is a classic example of the stolen valor act…he did not step foot in afghanistan! and was thrown out of iraq when he worked as a us contractor…

    Reply
  2. Jeremy M. Lange

    In regards to the previous comment:

    When I got the story from Hofeller I confirmed as much as I could, about his criminal record, details from his mom, and about his enlistment in the Army. The soldier we went out with, who was said to have served with him, backed up what I had been told at the time. But you may have a point. I could find no way to confirm a lot of what he said, when and where he was deployed, whether or not he did some of the things he said he did, It is not the sort of thing that would be public knowledge. So other than stating that the facts could not be independently verified, I can offer you no other insight, or confirmation.
    If you have details that further your points, please feel free to contact me through my website.
    All the best
    jeremy

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Jeremy The bottom line as to wether or not a soldier who claims as much as he or she has done as far as claiming to be in a war zone the proof would be backed up on a soldiers DD-214 that also documents the soldiers awards and medals but has to be the original document not a copy…thanks

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    In regards to your reply jeremy.Hofeller was on a one year tour in kuwait during the start of the war. that is a fact. but did not cross over into the war zone during that time at any point. that is also a fact..He also was hired with a private security firm in wich he was in fact working in iraq in 05/06 I did see him there. He did not serve in a military role in any capacity as far as the both wars going on other than private security.The bottom line is as far as a soldier is concerned The DD-214 is the proof as to a soldiers wartime experience and also list the soldiers medals and awards..thanks jeremy

    Reply

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