Working Through and Working With: Jessica Hines and My Brother’s War
Out of all of the vernacular language surrounding notions of dying, death and grief, the most satisfyingly articulate terminology that I have come across is “trauerarbeit,” which is the German word for grief, translating literally to “grief work.”
The work of grief. And for those of us old enough or unlucky enough to have experienced it close-hand, we know that grief is most definitely a kind of work: at turns mundanely monotonous and at others breathlessly searing, it is also the kind of work that — depending on one’s relationship to the deceased — we find may only end when we become someone else’s trauerarbeit.
Jessica Hines’s seminal and epic project, My Brother’s War, is an artist’s honest and earnest response to the call to do the work of grieving. Twelve years in the making and told in discrete chapters, it calls to mind all of the paradoxes and intricacies involved the process of settling someone’s affairs: testimony, discovery, projected fictions for the swaths of life kept hidden, biography-after-the-fact, acknowledgement of the forces outside of one’s control, and how family itself is always one of those forces.
She offers this as the prelude to the work:
On November 4th , my brother arrived in Qui Nhon, Viet Nam. It was my eighth birthday. When my brother and I said our “good-byes” it would be the last time we saw one another for years.
Honorably discharged from the army in 1969 with a “service connected nervous condition”, we later came to know his problem as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My pre-war brother, a normal and well-adjusted person had become, according to the US Veterans Administration, 50% disabled. He took his own life about ten years later.
In an attempt to better understand what happened to my brother, I made these photographs and journeyed twice to Viet Nam where I retraced Gary’s “footsteps” using his letters and photographs to serve as my guides. I continue to make new discoveries about what took place and am sometimes greatly surprised by what I find.
In explaining the experience of her early expectations of the work, Jessica recounts a sentiment that many artists immersed in a decade’s worth or more of a project can identify with: she thought she would make the work fairly quickly, resolve what she thought she had to resolve, and that would be that. Early expectations, however, have a way of getting away from us, and artists employ both conscious and unconscious means of thwarting their own too-narrow intentions in order to get at the true nature of their own questions and to identify their stakes in what they are creating.
I began this work with black & white film and expected to finish the work fairly quickly. The early work was also begun from the perspective of my child-mind because it was my childhood self who I was in touch with while reading Gary’s letters. I was a small child when he arrived in Viet Nam and for all the years that followed during which he was involved in the war, his move later to Viet Nam to live as a civilian, and his return to the U.S. to live in the Colorado mountains in order to escape the pressures of society — these were all witnessed by the child-mind so it seemed to be the logical place to begin.
The first chapter of My Brother’s War begins this way: with Hines layering together letters, drawings, and toy army soldiers in an attempt to stage what a child’s understanding of an unfathomable adult event looks like. In the context of the other nine chapters, this first one “reads” visually like a prelude. The work that follows is completely other in terms of texture, strategy, references to memory and emotional impact. It is almost as if “The Remembrance” section needed to get seen, shot and sequenced before the rest of the project’s possibilities could become visible to her.
In Chapters 2–10, Hines begins to occupy and intermingle multiple roles and multiple spaces: private investigator, biographer, next-of-kin, fiction writer, priestess, sister, mourner, artist. The role of biographer in particular, feels an especially prominent current throughout: after concluding “The Remembrance” section, Hines recognized a need to physically inhabit and dwell in the actual spaces her brother Gary lived and worked while in Viet Nam, and while undergoing experiences that would mark and define the rest of his life. She took two separate trips there, each time uncovering more layers of history, encountering more questions in attempts to answer others.
Using her brother’s letters and a box of his personal effects as a guide, Hines made contact with old army buddies and attended reunions with them to get a clearer picture of Gary’s experiences and life in Viet Nam; she also used the photographs as starting points on her two journeys there, as she went to the cities he lived in, looked at the landscapes that were his peripheral everyday, felt the air that he had once felt on her own, twenty-five-years-later skin. She did this in order to be able to create images of things that no longer existed, to “reflect an illusion of memory.”
The resultant images become their own kind of dual-narrative: one that tells what one knows of a life that no longer is, but also one that acknowledges the vastness of what remains unknowable, and then allows herself permission to fill in the blanks as herself: as sister, as story-teller, as stranger. When I consider the images from chapters titled, “The Imaginings,” “I Pray for Your Spirit,” or “A Love Story,” I find myself wondering: what of the studied life becomes inseparable from the mind and life of the artist/biographer, after her years of careful study? And further: what value to that self is there in cataloging, distilling, coming to terms with the life of another? What does it teach one about oneself? Is there resolution, reconciliation in the study or in the making — or is it possible that the desired-for healing from such experiences and encounters is not really the point of it at all?
From a critical stand point I am impressed by the variety of solutions Hines employs to create such effective and moving imagery, images made over twelve years with a scarcity of source content. Employing a combination of reflections, magnifications, shadows, handwriting and dated artifacts, she consistently pulls an impressive amount of introspection and meaning out of so comparatively little. Exercising a masterful sense of attunement, she succeeds in creating a sense of drama and foreboding while never tipping her hand towards spectacle or emotional opportunism. The contained tornado inside the water glass in “I Pray for Your Spirit #8” is both descriptive of a suicidal mind in turmoil as well as foretelling the aftermath left in the wake of such leaving. In “Gary Untitled #1” we are given to consider the diptych of Child Gary vs. Adult Gary with PTSD. The detail that immediately calls my attention is the body language differences between boy and man: the easy, open body of the boy that just planted tomato plants vs. the guarded and self-protective stance of two decades later. Hines gives us just enough information to have us wander into our own constructed scenarios of what happened, wondering what did he experience, what could have changed a person so many orders of magnitude? And what of the Vietnamese woman who literally becomes a vesper in “Love Story #9?” Our guesses are as good as hers, is another offering the photos have for us. Gary took his demons with him when he took his life, and no one else gets to look at them squarely for what they were. If art is essentially problem-solving, then Hines has figured out multiple solutions to the problem of how to make an image of something that isn’t there. It is an even more significant accomplishment given the subject matter of the work; she is able to do this without resorting to sentimentality, which elevates both the work and my regard for it as a viewer.
But let’s return for a moment to trauerarbeit, to the work of grief. Joan Didion has written with perfect pitch about the experience a griever has of “magical thinking” about the deceased, which can take the form of bargaining with the universe to undergo any trial or challenge for the return of the departed, to creating one’s own system of arbitrary rules and games that the end result of which, one imagines, is more time with the beloved. The first year after someone’s death is often the hardest, as we catalog anniversaries of that last year of their life, and move through each season with a renewed sense of grief. Subsequent seasons and years ebb and flow; almost normal seeming some of the time, and then an unanticipated undertow of emotion can occur with an individual internal logic that may only make sense much later. When is it over, this work? When are you ever done? When, to borrow a phrase from Jessica’s project, is the spirit released? And you released from it?
My Brother’s War is trauerarbeit embodied to a very high degree. Even if there are no more chapters to be written or photographed, no more discoveries about Gary’s life to be made, I believe that this work will continue throughout all that Hines continues to make — like a refrain on one’s preferred instrument that one cannot help but keep making. That future work will be all the more resonant for it.
Artist and storyteller Jessica Hines, uses the camera’s inherent quality as a recording device to explore illusion and to suggest truths that underlie the visible world. At the core of Hines’ work lies an inquisitive nature inspired by personal memory, experience and the unconscious mind. Her work has been exhibited widely and has appeared in the China Pingyao International Photography Festival Pingyao, China, Fototage in Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Germany, as well as at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the Spéos Photographic Institute in Paris, France. The New Yorker has published Hines’ work numerous times and it has been been exhibited and published throughout North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.
Stacy J. Platt is the editor for the Society for Photographic Education’s flagship publication Exposure Magazine. Exposure’s mission is the same as the SPE organization itself: to understand how photography matters in the world. Stacy is also a photographer, writer and arts educator living and working in Colorado.
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