Ed Drew is a US Air Force staff sergeant who is receiving publicity for his arresting photographs of fellow members of his helicopter squadron in Afghanistan. He speaks engagingly about his photos and views on art at this link, and he maintains a blog that features his photography before, during, and after his deployment as well as his poetry. Most remarkable about his Afghanistan photos is that they are “tintypes” or “wet plates”—a technique employed by Civil War photography pioneers such as Mathew Brady, but one that is far too cumbersome to be practical these days. Drew’s inspired decision to shoot using such archaic technology lends his subjects a timeless, stately, and elegiac feel. Because the photos depend on such long exposure and development times, they convey deep stillness and penetration, as if their subjects gave up more and more of their souls the longer the camera lingered. The choice of medium connects contemporary service with older traditions uncomplicated by problems associated with modernity, and suggest that soldiering is experienced and understood individually and in small units, shorn of global politics and large-scale social consequences.
Or, perhaps, the old-time-iness of Drew’s photos calls into question exactly those things—how dare we associate the high-tech, rigged-out warriors of the 21st-century with Brady’s bewhiskered 19th-century generals and battlefield dead—farmboys from north and south who fought the Civil War in bare feet?
I’m on surer ground when I allow Drew’s photos—which I love—to trigger a train of memories about my own interactions with Air Force personnel in Afghanistan, of which there were many. For example, I was and remain curious about the perspective of the airmen stationed at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan, that purgatory through which soldiers and Marines passed on their way to and from Afghanistan hell. Even more I wonder about the small groups of airmen (some of whom were women) who made their way all the way downrage to the tiny FOBs on which I did my tour. All were great people, all were competent in their jobs, but the evidence that they had volunteered to serve their country specifically NOT by being placed in the way of direct fire weapons registered clearly on their faces upon arrival. Maybe not scared, but confused and dismayed at the proximity of so many Army infantry bubbas, men who daily rose to the challenge of rolling out the gate with a certain nonchalance or even swagger.
Not to be snarky, because Drew and his unit, an elite Combat Rescue team in Kandahar, saw plenty of action, but it is interesting that most of his photographic subjects are airmen decked out in soldierly kit and weaponry, with the hardened visages of experienced ground-pounding troops. In truth, “caveats” protected most Air Force personnel in Afghanistan; they served base jobs and were prohibited from missions deemed likely to see combat. But on the new-age circular battlefield, anything could happen anytime to anyone. I’ve written elsewhere about an Air Force medic, who while on a routine supply run, found himself in a battle patching up dozens of US, Afghan army, and Afghan civilian casualties. I also think of an Air Force captain who in response to a crisis was sent into sector as head of a squad of US Army soldiers to guard a lonely Afghan crossroads near the Pakistan border. Almost immediately, his squad was hit and suffered casualties. As night fell and bad weather set in, he found himself with wounded to care for, low water and ammunition, sketchy radio communication, and no hope of resupply, reinforcement, or evacuation until morning. Not the most dire situation ever, from an infantryman’s perspective, but probably more than the Air Force captain bargained for when he raised his right hand. For me, that sense of disorientation–an airman (and an artist at that) caught in a grunt’s war–helps explain Ed Drew’s curious eye and artistic hunger.
This post is dedicated to all the Air Force personnel with whom I served at Camp Clark and FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2008-2009.
Images copyright Ed Drew, courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco. Robert Koch Gallery website here.