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HomeEvents“You Can’t Regret Life”: The Wounded Exhibit at the Canadian War Museum

“You Can’t Regret Life”: The Wounded Exhibit at the Canadian War Museum

By Spencer McBride, The Guard –

The Wounded approaches the violence of war with photos of wounded veterans that prove to be both visceral and touching. The new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum features 18 up-close and personal photographs of these Canadian Armed Forces veterans, accompanied by their stories of both struggle and victory. Award-winning photo-journalist Stephen J. Thorne was inspired to create the series by the stories he heard and the things he saw during his time as a journalist in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004. The stories he wrote during that time showed him that often, the wounded did not get the attention they deserved. As one of the War Museum Trustees, Dr. James Fleck, observed, “When we speak of war, we speak of loss of life, but less often of the wounded.”

The exhibit was originally developed in partnership with Legion Magazine, which published sixteen of the portraits online in 2017. Jennifer Morse, General Manager of the magazine’s publisher, Canvet Publications Ltd, notes that “When Legion Magazine published Stephen Thorne’s photographs, the response was immediate and powerful… Stephen has proven to be an elegant and effective ambassador for these veterans.”

The 18 massive/giant black-and-white photos of the veterans dominate the hallway between the permanent exhibits and the machinery-filled atrium of the museum, and their life-size scale is important to their meaning. As Curator Dr. Andrew Burtch notes, “It was important to print them as large as they are, and at eye level. We wanted to make sure that visitors are not simply seeing a photo, but actually meeting them as people.”

Likewise, the framing in black and white echoes the earlier conflicts so familiar to the public, with the connection to the World Wars communicating the ongoing price that so many veterans pay. Thorne has made it his mission to expose this price to the public, and to ensure the wounded receive the attention they deserve. “The word injured doesn’t do justice to the real consequences,” he says, “It makes what they’ve been through sound like a twisted ankle. It’s a euphemism, like collateral damage or friendly fire, that doesn’t convey the profound life-changing effect of these tragedies.” For him, the word “Wounded” still fails to capture the full extent of what they’ve been through, but it comes closer.

The Wounded exhibit begins with an advisory about graphic accounts of the pain of war. Some of the wounds are indeed visceral, and the stories that accompany them often terrifying. But the exhibit itself inspires hope, rather than terror. Each veteran photograph has a story of triumph, either in their past or still in progress.

The contrasting sides of each story is apparent in the starkness of the photos, and makes it impossible not to relate to the veterans personally. Master Corporal André Girard lost almost 30% of his skull, but took longer to heal from the guilt of surviving while others in his unit had perished. Captain Justin Brunelle’s injuries required 20 operations, 400 staples, and 2,000 stitches to repair, and while admitting the struggle, he still shrugs at how “it could always have been worse.” With her vehicle hit by a roadside bomb, Master Corporal Natacha Dupuis took up sports as part of her recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eventually medalling at the Invictus Games in 2016 and 2017. Master Corporal Paul Franklin maintains a positive attitude despite the loss of both legs to a suicide bomb, speaking about his difficulties with a quote that defines the attitude of many of the veterans: “You can’t regret life.”

Some of the veterans pictured in the exhibit were in attendance at its opening, and received a standing ovation for their courage. The curators recognized them for it as well, while contrasting it with veterans of older conflicts, who tended to show their own courage in their efforts to shelter others from the horror of war, and choosing to speak about their experience only to those who had experienced it alongside them.

Thorne found this approach in some of the veterans that he asked to participate, with one of them responding, “My stories, I prefer to keep in my head. The war is something I want to leave behind me.” For those in the exhibit, they saw it as their duty to share anything that might help others in similar situations, and often felt that it was a necessary part of the healing process. Each of these approaches has its own value, and none is better than the others – it’s simply a matter of what works best for the individual .

For Thorne, the photos “illuminate immediate consequences of war, and demonstrate both the frailty and the strength of the human body.” The wounds that the veterans suffered range from lost limbs, to PTSD, to horrific scars, to nightmares of lost loved ones, but the true story of the exhibit is their recovery. Dr. Burtch spoke passionately about that process, saying “these veterans are a group of individuals who get back from war and have to fight again just to get back to normal. That’s a huge part of the struggle of war, and that’s why the exhibit is not solely about them, but also their support networks.” Indeed, the stories from parents and partners are integral to the display, helping the audience understand how the wounds changed the veterans and how hard they had to work to overcome those challenges and become the new person they wanted to be. As Thorne says, “recovery is not returning to who you were, but moving on to be someone else.”

You can read each of the stories from the veterans at the exhibit, between 15 February 2019 and 2 June 2019, or on the War Museum site. Each individual has a personal story that anyone can relate to, and the beautiful photos help the audience understand what they have been through. The last word goes to Stephen Thorne, to whom these men and women “represent the best of Canada – their courage, their sacrifice, and their dedication.”

This post is also available in: Français (French)

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