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 Community Stories-supported project launched on Veterans Day, November 11, 2014 and quickly attracted widespread viewership and media attention. To date, the exhibit has received over 50,000 visits and extensive media coverage, as well as several prestigious awards, including the Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize for Excellence in Public Humanities Programming by the Federation of State Humanities Councils in November 2015.
Following are excerpts from an interview conducted with the project directors by California Humanities staff. For the full text, visit here.
Q: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO THIS PROJECT?
A: 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.
Q: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO AN ONLINE EXHIBIT?
A: 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 came 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.
Q: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED?
A: The project started out small – Contra Costa-based – but immediately snowballed to statewide scope with grants from the State Library and other funders on top of California 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 veteran 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. Another challenge was how to do the project at a bigger scale, while keeping the quality we had originally envisioned. Karen Kraft of Veterans in Film and Television was so helpful in introducing us to media 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 it required an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and diplomatic skill to manage.
Q: WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESPONSE?
A: Of course, the reach of the project (over 50,000 visits since November 2014), 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 it has: the Webby nomination (we almost won!), the American Library Association commendation, and the Independent Media Award. Just recently we learned that this project has actually helped change official Department of Defense policies regarding tattooing. That our project – a library-based exhibit of veteran stories – could have this kind of impact is amazing.