Don Unrau: War Story


Recently, Don Unrau contacted us about showing one of his series, The Revolutionary Moment, not being familiar with Don’s work, we did a bit of research and stumbled upon another of his series War Story. The pared back approach and combination of story and image is engrossing, not only for the striking portraits within, but also the candid delivery of a visual narrative; Veterans, putting pen to paper, recounting their experiences. Ranging from short and blunt to extended recollections of sadness, patriotism and pathos, War Story marries Don’s own personal experience as a Vietnam veteran with that of others who spent time there.

It’s been 30 years since War Story was first shown and exhibited, we ask Don how he feels about this series now, and given the closing of yet another conflict is it perhaps taking on new relevance.

We read that after being injured and discharged from Vietnam in 1973, you destroyed all of your negatives from your time spent there. Having erased a big part of your personal record of the war, with War Story did you feel you were reanimating your experiences through the lives of other returned servicemen?

Right. While in Vietnam during the war, I carried a small Japanese rangefinder and began thinking that it’s a pretty cool feeling to frame something in the viewfinder. Then, a short time after coming home, I thought it would be a good idea to cut up all the negatives I had taken. Later, in the 80’s, shit started to percolate. Fortunately, at the end of art school I began the War Story series. so I do think there was some interest in seeing how other veterans thinking might be similar to my own; but equally there was the curiosity of telling a war story and putting it out there visually though a portrait.

It was a decent chunk of time between the end of the conflict and the start of making War Story; over a decade, what made it the right time?

The right time is when forces come together to make it difficult not to do it. I happened to be near the end of my studies and was fortunate to have had teachers who challenged me. Often, it takes time for events to come home ‘to roost,’ creating the right conditions. Even when you’re younger you can get the feeling that time is running out.

For years after, the record of Vietnam and its returned veterans was something messy and swept under the rug, did you feel like these peoples stories needed to be told?

Yeah. That time was at the height of Vietnam ‘blow-back.’ I imagine a lot of people were wondering what was going on with these people(vets). We all have stories to tell and for veterans the spoken war story is a classic narrative. But, I was less interested in listening to one, than I was in making a visual document. I wanted to see the words on paper with their portrait. Not an original idea, but the connection between the two seems to work.

Can you tell us how and why you selected the people that you did for the series? Was it hard to get people to open up honestly about their experiences?

Though I didn’t generally hang out with vets, I did know some well enough to feel comfortable asking, and it helped being a vet. After a couple portraits, it was kind of word of mouth that expanded the circle. For myself, there seemed to be a fair amount of tension while working with them. All the shared experiences, then asking them to write something permanent for others to see makes it pretty heavy. Though you never really know, it seems like there is always something held back. Far more is unspoken and unwritten. But, their honesty was always apparent, no matter what they chose to write about.

How did you get the photographs, were they planned and considered or were they shot candidly during your visits?

Generally, I’d meet them at their homes for conversation about what I was up to. I’m sure that most really didn’t have much of a notion about what the images would end up looking like. Maybe they didn’t dwell on that like I may have, but, I do think they trusted me to be as genuine as I thought they were. Even having my camera with me, I usually didn’t photograph at the first meeting. At that point, in my mind I was planning on what I might do to make the portrait. I always asked what they wanted…some gave me help, others were more interested in the process than the outcome. I left them a piece of white paper with borders they would write within. Often it took weeks to get the writing back. When I got the writing we’d then get at making the portrait. After the portrait was made it was off to the darkroom to combine the two. As for the photographs, maybe they are ‘planned candids,’ if there is such a thing.

Forty years on, The Vietnam conflict is perhaps cemented in the collective consciousness as a regretful part of American history, was this echoed by the people you talked to for this series or did you find that Vietnam meant different things to different people? 

Yes, for a lot of Americans, ‘Vietnam’ is one of the more regretful parts of our history. But, I was very surprised to find such a wide range of emotions toward the war, and our country. All I asked was they write something about ‘Vietnam.’ It didn’t matter to me how much they wrote, or what they wrote…the sadness, pathos, patriotism. They gave me what they could, which was a lot and I am grateful for what they did.

Has the project changed for you over the years? With men and women returning home once again from conflict, how has this informed how you read War Story now?

The portraits were in a box for a long time. A few years ago one of the images was requested by a curator for a large exhibition. At that point I began trying to get them out so more people could see them. Looking at them now still stirs up a lot of emotion from the years in which they were made. I can’t help look at them and think of all the young veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam veterans were screwed…it’s even worse for these young people.

You returned to Vietnam in the 90’s to shoot another series (Mediations Vietnam), how has your understanding of the country and it’s people changed given distance and time? 

In 1991-92, I really needed to get back to Vietnam. That was when our first Iraq war started. Emotions were high and I thought it might be a good time to see what it looked like back in Vietnam. I had finished the War Story photographs and felt like it was time to grab the camera, some black and white film and see what we had been fighting over. It was exciting with the emotion of being there, looking through the viewfinder at this place that was not at all like I had experienced before. Even though it was a different place, I still felt the need to make a visual connection for myself, which had to include remnants of our war. Even now, when I return to Vietnam I realize things have changed dramatically, but I still can’t help looking for the few left-over reminders of the war. Their population is very young, so even though the youth of Vietnam have a good understanding of history, their interest is in moving on and that’s probably the best thing for a lot of people to do.

Interview and foreword – Geordie Cargill.