Five illustrators, all members of the Society of Illustrators in New York, were sent to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. with one instruction: Make portraits of service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The artists were representing the Joe Bonham Project (named after the famous anti-war novel ‘Johnny got his gun’ written by Dalton Trumbo in 1938 and later on turned into a movie? Yes, a small group of combat artists dedicated to documenting the experiences of wounded service members. What they created is not just a drawing, it is a portrait.
Michael D. Fay, one of the illustrators and also the founder of the Joe Bonham Project, wrote down his experiences in a three-part series. A quote:
‘We introduce ourselves simply. We’re war artists and have been out in the fight multiple times with you guys; living under the same conditions and capturing your combat experiences in art. We then give them our basic vision of why we’re here: You guys are still in the fight and what you do every day to recover and make the absolute best of your new reality is important to your fellow Americans.’
The project serves several goals on both the individual and the societal level. The goal for the service members might be, on the one hand, to raise awareness by telling their story and showing their body (societal level) and, on the other hand, to promote mental recovery or, as Steve Mumford put it, ‘drawing makes people really feel seen, on an emotional plane’. Or, in the words of Sergeant Ross, who is continuing rehabilitation: ‘A photograph shows you what you see when you look at your reflection, but you get somebody to draw you, and it’s how they see you’. I believe they’re right: a creative medium can serve as a powerful tool in both raising awareness and helping to overcome traumas!