‘Image Nation’ photos offer healing for vets | TheUnion.com

‘Image Nation’ photos offer healing for vets

Lorraine Jewett | Special to Prospector
U.S. military veteran Thomas Anthony Henshall Jr., a scout sergeant in Iraq from 2005-2011, was one of the veterans who participated in "Image Nation," a photo exhibit by veterans that opens Friday at Nevada County's Rood Center.
Submitted photo |


“Image Nation” Opening Reception

5 – 8 p.m. Friday, June 3

Free Admission

Rood Government Center

950 Maidu Avenue, Nevada City

Photography exhibit runs through July 8

Monday-Friday 8 a,m. to 5 p.m.

Thanks to a camera and an innovative project for military veterans, Mark Thomas has the sky back in his life.

“I can’t describe the gruesome, shocking, horrific things I witnessed in Vietnam,” Thomas said of his two tours of duty. When his company was strafed by enemy fire, it often came from overhead. “We spent a lot of time looking up, worrying what was coming next.”

He said he and other vets returned stateside and were labeled “baby killers.” He became increasingly defensive and anti-social, and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) several years ago.

Thomas said he never looked up because the sky reminded him of the horrors of war.

Then he joined “Image Nation: Photography for and by Veterans,” and began shooting photographs of the sky and clouds.

“It reminded me of when I was a kid growing up in Nebraska, looking up at the clouds and guessing what animals or other things they looked like. I hadn’t done that for 40 years.”

Thomas’s shot of an American flag ringed by a sun dog is one of the iconic photographs included in Image Nation, the project in which award-winning photographer Michael Llewellyn shared his skills with local military veterans. The gala opening reception of the photography exhibit is scheduled tomorrow.

The exhibit was unveiled Tuesday and will be on display through July 8. Six photographs from each of the nine participating veterans were selected to be included in the exhibit, plus Lewellyn’s portraits of the vets’ faces and hands. Lewellyn instructed nine workshops with the veterans between October and February. The deeply personal photographs were shot with the veterans’ own equipment.

The triumph of the Image Nation exhibit transcends the lens of a camera. Thousands of photographs were taken; much more was given back.

“The result is nine very individual bodies of work that perfectly reflect the veteran creating them. In pursuit of their creative aspirations, the veterans learned something about themselves and each other,” said Llewellyn. “This exhibit gives the community the opportunity to learn something about them as well. I’m hoping what the public takes away from the exhibition is a feeling for who veterans are and their value to the community.”

Llewellyn began taking photographs at age 12 when his mother gave him her Kodak Brownie. His successful career has sent him around the world shooting photographs for national and international print publications including Time magazine. He lives in Grass Valley with his wife Heather, who is his business partner and project producer.

Llewellyn’s Image Nation students were men and women veterans, some of whom suffer with PTSD, whose deployments ranged from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The youngest is 27; the oldest is 69. They served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and National Guard. Llewellyn is a veteran of the US Air Force Reserve.

Army veteran Lin Jovanović’s photographs explore gender roles and transient military life.

“I found a mannequin at a yard sale, and used it to illustrate the deeper meaning of what it was like to be a woman in the military. It’s a patriarchal organization, and we women were invisible in the 70’s,” she explained, adding that she grew up a “military brat” in a family that moved often. “I think my six photos speak to what the expectations of us are in life and the transitory nature of connections. They explore what we present of ourselves to others, and what parts of our true self we mask.”

The Nevada County Arts Council was one of nine county arts councils to receive funds from the California Arts Council’s “Veterans Initiatives in the Arts.” NCArts executive director Eliza Tudor said the $10,000 grant from the statewide organization, plus $6,000 in private donations, funded Image Nation. The veterans selected for the project were recruited with the help of the local veteran-advocacy organization Welcome Home Vets.

“It’s significant that the exhibit opened just after Memorial Day weekend, when interest in and empathy for our veteran community still hangs in the air,” noted Tudor. “We know our veterans will come to the reception. What we really want is our community to respond to this.”

Tudor said NCArts will hear next month whether it has been awarded a second California Arts Council grant, which would be used to fund a mobile installation and “take the exhibit on the road.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com

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