UT Art Professor to Help Student Veterans Document War Experiences via Candid Photos

Veterans Day is Friday, and UT Knoxville wants to thank the more than 629 faculty, staff, and students who are active duty U.S. military, veterans, reservists, or members of the National Guard.

KNOXVILLE— About two years ago during a photo class, University of Tennessee art professor Baldwin Lee walked up to Trent Frazor and noticed he had pictures on his computer screen that weren’t related to a class project.

One was a grainy black-and-white picture of Frazor, a veteran of the Iraq War, in a foxhole, his face and hands covered in camouflage paint, rifle and water flask behind him. He had a piercing gaze in his eyes.

Trent Frazor

Trent Frazor at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 2003 during infantry school.

“The first thing that struck me was how personal they were,” Lee said of Frazor’s photos. “They were very different than the photos coming from the embedded press.”

The embedded press, he said, was looking for photos that had high-drama value while soldiers’ pictures captured their everyday experiences.

That moment with Frazor planted an idea in Lee’s mind to help student veterans document their time in the military through their own candid photos.

“I really have been taken by photographs of where they live and how they live and especially the ones taken over the holidays,” he said. “To see a Christmas card pinned on a bare plywood wall next to their bunk is compelling.”

Lee has been meeting with student veterans and is seeking more to be part of the project. He plans to collect enough photographs to have an exhibit in the spring and possibly put together a publication. He will be working with the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and the UT Center for the Study of War and Society.

Lee noted that thanks to digital cameras, phones, and other electronic devices, soldiers are chronicling wartime in ways it has never been before.

“It’s unlike Tom Brokaw’s ‘the Greatest Generation,’ where letter-writing was the norm,” he said. “When historians do research about Iraq and Afghanistan, the sources will be very different.”

Soldiers are texting and e-mailing the unedited photos and also putting them on Facebook.

In addition to highlighting the photos of student veterans, Lee’s project will spotlight what he calls “this hidden population.”

There are about 400 new students on campus this fall that have veteran status.

“These vets will sit in class and they’ll be a few years older than their classmates, but look the same,” he said. “But with what they’ve seen and done, it must be hard sometimes to have patience with their fellow students and professors.

“It’s got to be something for them to witness how untouched the rest of the university is by this war. I imagine they can’t help but feel isolated and marginalized and it may be hard for them to partake in the joviality like the rest of the student body can.”

Lee added that he hopes the project changes the way faculty members look at their classes and the way they opine about politics, history, and current events.

Frazor, now 26, and a UT graduate student in art education, said the project would be another avenue for the public to understand the reality of war, from the mundane to the difficult.

The project would also put a face on the war, said Frazor, who was honorably discharged recently from the Marines after eight years.

“It’s the idea that it’s real people,” he said. “It’s not just a story.”

C O N T A C T :

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

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