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Ten Years After Iraq – the Best and Worst Thing I Ever Participated in

I served in the U.S. Army during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. War, in many ways, was the best and worst thing I ever participated in. This book is about some of the issues veterans of this war face once they came back home. They had to reconcile their pride in serving their country with the outcome of the war in which they fought.

I joined the military for many reasons but certainly not to be the bad guy. I bought into the idea of serving my country and the U.S. being this great force for freedom and democracy. With the Iraq war, it was hard to pretend what my country did was right. This exploration started as a way to find my personal peace and ultimately the work was created to serve a greater audience.

I think this is a very relevant topic. For a long time, my country lacked clarity as to who we are. We instilled a façade where we gloss over our mistakes. We like to pride ourselves in our accomplishments but forget the collateral damages that come with our interventions. We are reckless and self-centered. In the name of fighting terrorism, the U.S. has created a mess all over the world. It’s important today because the U.S. still plays a big role on the global stage. Personally, I was a soldier that participated in it, so I’ve an obligation to look myself in the mirror too.

I was a soldier, part of the invasion from Kuwait into Baghdad. I was part of a war. The images, if anything, served to express feelings and longings that I couldn’t as a soldier. We were at war. There’s no place for personal feelings.

I wasn’t a photographer at that point in my life. The photographs were taken to document that period for myself like what a tourist would. The images were later edited to reveal a subconscious mood that I felt but couldn’t articulate clearly at the time.

The feelings and topic of the book could have been created in other mediums but my strength was photography, so I want to use my strongest area as an artist to convey this topic that means a lot to me. I didn’t want to risk not maximizing the work because I was in the middle of learning video or sound.

The work is really text-based versus image, so I didn’t really see it as a set of prints on a wall. I want it to be honest and intimate, a personal conversation between me and a specific person (a stranger), holding my book at any particular time.

The book was meant to be read twice or more, with the second time being deeper. The book form seemed to fit that criteria.

The intent to deal with my part in the war came first. Sometimes, the images dictate the narrative but in this case my intentions to reconcile my personal feelings drove the project.

I had scanned these images in the past for personal archival reasons. For this book, I sorted through the digital archive and printed about 200-300 images in small sizes. Like most traditional editing process, I spread the pictures out on multiple tables and just looked and let the feelings come through.

A lot of emotions came to the surface for me. Mainly the bond that I had experience with the people I served with. I really missed it but it also bought a lot of guilt because I kept choosing to romanticize something that was very tragic for the people who were victimized as part of our war.

There were two images of a young girl that wasn’t in the book. I would often see this same girl when I drove by. This was before roadside IEDs became common and we were able to use the same driving routes often. I never spoke nor met her but we would make it a point to wave to each other when I drove by. The kid was probably 10-13 years old. Old enough to know what’s going on in her country but probably not what was to come. I think looking back at these images, I’m haunted by the fact that I know what probably happened to them after my unit left in 2003.

One of the benefits of being in the military is the subsidized education. I was able to attend school for free. After serving in Iraq, I studied photography for two years and later took an interest in the arts. I went on to study for my MFA at the School of Visual Arts. My arts education allowed me to understand and express ideas in ways which I wasn’t capable before.

Exploring my emotions. My work can be very intense and takes a lot out of me emotionally. My former professor Joe Maida said it best, “If you constantly pick your wounds before they can heal, you’ll bleed to death.” For now, I like the results of making art this way. Hopefully, I won’t bleed to death anytime soon.

I think as an artist, it is important to know your own intentions. An artist should be free in the process, so I’m against strict boundaries in the thinking and making process of the work. On the other hand, an artist must know “why?” “Why is this work out there?” “What is it for?”

On a personal level, the work allowed me to clarify and deal with my own conscience and allowed me more space to move forward. I wanted to create that space for my viewers. If a veteran read my book, I hope he or she knew they are not alone with these feelings. If the viewers didn’t serve in the war, I hope it gave them entry to my emotions. Hopefully, I can move them so they can fight on my and other veterans’ behalf. Hope more people invest themselves in their government. I still believe people are generally good and kind. Hopefully, good people investing themselves in their country means we’ll have good, kind-hearted policies.

There were a lot of techniques used in the book because I wanted the viewers to feel the nuanced confusion I was dealing with. I often find work dealing with this topic to be too loud. I wanted it to be really quiet, so I avoided many “hooks” to draw the experience. I think dealing with this topic needed my absolute honesty and generosity in terms of vulnerability. If I was able to do that, the audience of the work would not be bounded by art or the art education context.

In other artists’ work, I look for strong positions, the ability to present difficult issues in nuanced ways. The use of techniques and strategies to provide an experience for the viewers. Lastly, work that doesn’t just entertain but serves as a catalyst for changes in the real world.

I hope my work contributes to the times we are living in. So, it is a reaction to our social, political, or financial conditions. The teachers, mentors, and peers I’ve met along the way have greatly informed my ability to look and parse the world I live in. I’m sincerely grateful to SVA for guiding my growth as a person and artist.

Charles Traub , Joseph Maida were instrumental as teachers in guiding this work. The book was basically made in their two critique classes. Project Projects, the design company, made the final design and took care of all of the print production. Big thank you to Cary and Grace at Project Projects for getting the book to the finish line.

You can buy William’s book ‘Ten Years After Iraq’ on Edition.ly

William Chan

William Chan is an artist, producer, and publisher. His work reflects upon the ramifications of U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East. His forthcoming book, Ten Years After Iraq, deals with issues facing veterans returning from the recent Iraq war.

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