Photojournalist’s exhibition documents war in Afghanistan

by Angela Gartner, Staff Writer

On January 27, photojournalist Bill Putnam’s opening show, “Abu in Bermel: Faces of Battle from Afghanistan,” which was held in the Robert S. Carey Student Center Performing Arts Center. Mr. Putnam strolled onto the stage after a short introduction from Brother Nathan, the Director of the Saint Vincent Gallery, and began to click through a PowerPoint of his photographs.

Putnam, a multi-media photographer, resides in Silver Spring, Maryland and specializes in portraiture and video. When asked if he had received any formal training, Putnam mentioned being educated at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) where he learned every other day for six weeks, as well as with his own research through other photo documentary books and later on- the-job training. At age 21, Putnam enlisted in the National Guard, and his career took off shortly thereafter.

Stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas from 1995-98, Putnam was mobilized through various locations from 1998-2005. His earliest work began in 1999 when Putnam was embedded in Kosovo. Later in 2003, he received an alert phone call from the Pentagon and later was again embedded in 2004. Putnam spent 2004-2005 in southwest Baghdad in uniform. Putnam commented that after returning home in a dizzying state of shell shock, he did not want to go back for a while. Yet he also shared that in 2010, he and his girlfriend were visiting friends in New York when a good friend mentioned documenting the war in Afghanistan. And ironically enough, after loads of paperwork and the “go” from his better half, Putnam spent the summer of 2010 embedded with Abu Company, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, in the Bermel district of Paktika province, Afghanistan. This experience became the basis for his latest show.

His motivations for documenting war vary from a deep interest in photographing war to shedding light on some of the most harrowing situations on a side of the world that has underwent and is still ongoing decades of destruction and war. He looks at it as a way of taking visual notes.

“Like being Steinbeck or Hemingway,” he chuckled, “these are the stories that need to be told.” Putnam also commented that a lot of photography captures love and happiness and peace. Yet he sees both sides of the spectrum. “There’s love and there’s war,” he added. And he wanted to show more than the pleasantries of life.

His portraiture portrays the faces of people fighting for our nation’s freedom, rather than graphic violence. His photos allowed the Saint Vincent community to look at the war from a new angle, and many of his photographs told stories other than shots of mangled buildings, explosions and bloody landscapes. Having brought to light the faces of soldiers both young and old, the photographs remind the public that these are real people out there sacrificing their lives every day for the safety and wellbeing of ours.

Dr. Wissolik, professor of English who teaches a class entitled Faces of Battle, said of the portraitures, “They are neither pro nor antiwar, but concentrate on the men and women who are serving their country in Afghanistan.”

The photographs were emotional, depicting the types of bonds and friendships soldiers inadvertently develop while serving together. Putnam formed many friendships himself while being embedded.

“I was on a first name basis,” he said of the men he encountered. Today he still maintains contact with many of his soldier friends, as there are Internet cafes where they are able to keep in touch with family and friends back home.

Brother Nathan stated in his introduction before Putnam’s talk that “battlefield photography has been around for almost 150 years, when Matthew Brady took his photographs showing the stark realities of the American Civil War in the early 1860s.” Before then, the public only saw war through paintings and drawings.

On a technical note, Putnam also explained some of the equipment and types of film he used while documenting. While working with both still photography and video, Putnam ventured home with only the photographs, as the video camera broke. He used approximately 95 out of the 100 rolls of film; 50 rolls of which were taken on kodachrome, a type of film that Kodak no longer manufactures. Putnam may have shot the last war that will ever be filmed on kodachrome. This unique film captures some of the most brilliant tones and colors that other types of film cannot convey.

In Brother Nathan’s introduction, he also mentioned several members of the Saint Vincent faculty such as Dr. Richard Wissolik who made this exhibition possible. Other contributors include: Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, Chapter 14, Westmoreland County, PA, students of Frank van Riper, John DePaul, Master Sergeant John DiBattista, Saint Vincent College Department of English, Saint Vincent College Department of History, The School of Humanities and Fine Arts, Dr. Timothy Kelly, Dr. Susan Sommers, Dr. Karen Kehoe, all of the Gallery Student assistants, especially Jordan Hainsey and Andrew Miller, and the men and woman of Abu Company.

Dr. Wissolik and his daughter Erica raised funds to support the printing and framing of Putnam’s photographs currently being featured in the Gallery. “The show came about because of my faces of battle class,” said Dr. Wissolik, who also mentioned his daughter. “Erica thought Bill might like to share his photos and insights with the class participants. I agreed. After that, I contacted Brother Nathan about a full gallery exhibit of Bill’s photos and things took off from there.”

Part of a group of photography students of Frank van Riper, Erica Wissolik is still close friends with Putnam. “We do shows together, shooting events, and support [our work] and each other,” she said.  Having encouraged Putnam to do a show at Saint Vincent College, Erica Wissolik also shared her thoughts on his portraiture. Besides the mayhem that a lot of war photography portrays, Putnam on the other hand, intends to “remind people that these are people. These are their faces. For the last ten years…they are the ones that are putting it all on the line” Erica Wissolik said, attempting to humanize the people that are often mistaken as simple casualties, numbers lost in the midst of battle.

The exhibition of Putnam’s work in the Saint Vincent Gallery continues through Sunday, February 20th during regular Gallery hours: 12 – 3 p.m. and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and noon to 3 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The gallery is closed on Mondays. Admission is free and open to the public.

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