“…the humanities have a real role in terms of how we think about our identity and our stories…” – Chris Brown
“…we’re talking about real human being’s lives in a way that is incredibly relevant right now…something that is crucial to the national dialogue…” – Jason Deitch
War Ink is an online interpretive exhibit of stories and images shared by 24 California veterans through photos, text, and audio and video recordings. Initiated by the Contra Costa Public Library and co-directed by a librarian, Chris Brown, and veteran advocate and social researcher, Jason Deitch, the project launched on Veterans Day, November 11, 2014, and quickly attracted widespread viewership and media attention. To date, the exhibit has received over 50K visits and extensive media coverage as well as several prestigious awards.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO THIS PROJECT?
We started working together back in 2010 to see what the Concord Library (Chris’ branch) could do to help veterans get the information they needed to access benefits, find jobs, and get help from social service agencies. At the same time, through talking with veterans, especially the younger veterans, we realized there really wasn’t much in the way of cultural programming, either at the library or in the community, that seemed relevant to them. We started looking around and found an exhibit of Vietnam-era Zippo lighters that soldiers had engraved during their time at war. We asked ourselves what would be similar for veterans today, and hit upon the idea of memorial body art – tattoos – as an authentic medium of cultural expression and storytelling already employed by many veterans – including Jason! We tested the idea out with some of the veterans we knew, and they liked it, too. As we thought and talked about it more, we realized we wanted to do something that would not only honor the veterans and their experience, but provide a way for the community to actually listen to these stories. So many veterans feel a sense of isolation and disconnection from “civilians” – people who haven’t served in the military. And, of course, collecting and sharing stories is at the heart of the library’s mission.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO AN ONLINE EXHIBIT?
We wanted to make this project relevant and meaningful to contemporary veterans. The internet and electronic media are central to communication and culture today, so that seemed like an appropriate medium to use. Since our focus was on tattoos, the exhibit can to have a strong visual element – it had to be able to share stories told through words as well as images. We thought we could get that, and do a better job of creating a high quality product with the resources we would be able to tap, through an online exhibit. We also wanted to amplify the voices of the veterans so that their stories could be heard by more people, so an online exhibit seemed to make sense – it would be something people could access anywhere at any time.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED?
We never dreamed how difficult this project would become! The project started out small – Contra Costa based – but immediately started snowballing to statewide scope with grants from the State Library and other funders on top of Cal Humanities’ initial investment. The process of recruiting veterans across the state was very labor-intensive – over four months we made literally hundreds of calls to tattoo parlors, campus vet centers, community-based veteran organizations, and did outreach through 30 library systems throughout the state to find people who were willing to share their stories with the public. At the same time, we were trying to figure out how to do the project at a bigger scale, while keeping the quality we had originally envisioned. We were really fortunate to get the help of Karen Kraft of Veterans in Film and Television. She opened so many doors for us, introducing us to media professionals whose services never would have been able to afford, who contributed their time and skills to the project at well below market rates. We were also lucky to have StoryCorps come on board as part of their Military Voices initiative – they agreed to do the interviewing. At the same time that all this support from external partners was great, it was a huge challenge for us to direct and coordinate and required an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and diplomatic skill to manage.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?
So many wonderful things happened we hadn’t anticipated, it’s hard to point to one. We didn’t anticipate quite how much the project would mean to the veterans who shared their stories with us. Over the course of the four day photo shoot last summer they really bonded. They – all of us – feel like we’re part of a community – we keep in touch, we help each other out, we care about each other. Maybe the most surprising thing to people outside the project was that it was sponsored by a library. People don’t usually think of libraries as being at the cutting-edge of cultural programming, but this project showed what libraries and librarians can do when they really pay attention to their communities and are willing to take risks and be adventurous.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESPONSE?
Of course the reach of the project (over 50,000 visits since November), the attention the project has received (stories in Newsweek, The Washington Post, PBS, and hundreds more media outlets), and the comments people have left on the website or shared with us in person have been hugely gratifying. We hear from active service members and veterans that the project has made them realize they’re not alone, that there’s a community out there that is interested in and cares about them, and wants to help them come home. “I realize I’m not the only one” is a frequent comment. At the same time we get a lot of feedback from people who haven’t served but feel the project has opened their eyes – and hearts – to veterans. To know that we’ve done something to help heal people and bridge the gap in our country between these two groups of people has been so rewarding. And, of course, we’re really gratified that the project has gotten the recognition through the Webby nomination (we almost won!), from the American Library Association, and the Independent Media Award.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PROJECT – AND YOU BOTH?
Right now, we’re still very immersed in this project, on top of our “day jobs.” Chris recently became Deputy Director of Santa Clara County Library System and Jason is working as a consultant for the VA on Joining Forces, a White House initiative to better assist veterans it their transition home. We get continuing inquiries about the project, including requests for interviews like this one, and of course we’re very much connected to the community of 24 veterans and their families that this project created. But we’ve been exploring a couple of options to extend the project through means of a traveling physical exhibit as well as making a documentary film or series of web-based episodes. If anyone out there has ideas or suggestions, please get in touch!
WHY DO THE HUMANITIES MATTER?
All of us have to make sense of our lives. One of the ways we do that is by creating stories. Stories help us process our experiences.They allow us to gain insight into ourselves. One of the things we’ve heard from the participants is that sharing their stories has given them clarity and helped them come to terms with their service experiences. For some, it’s meant they can now step outside the darkness that occupied their lives and see that life after war is possible.
Communities are forged from shared stories. If we don’t know about others, we can’t understand them, and can’t feel connected to them in any real way. This project made it possible for veterans to share their stories in a way that has allowed the public to listen to them and to finally begin to grasp the enormity of this experience and what they’re going through as they come back to civilian life. It’s a long and hard process for most veterans. Just knowing that someone is willing to listen can help keep you on track.
Just recently we learned that this project has actually helped change official policy regarding tattooing by changing the perception and understanding on the part of decision makers. That our project – a library-based exhibit of veteran stories – could have this kind of impact is amazing. If our project can do this, just imagine all the ways the humanities can be used to make the world a better place. Click HERE to learn more.
You can reach Chris and Jason through www.warink.org
Photo Credit: Johann Wolf