Surplus: Idols, Talismans, Charms, Souvenirs, and Mementos of The Modern Soldier

During the week of Veterans Day I began a new project, one born from the exploration of my own past.  I am not sure about where the project will go, if anywhere at all but below I have provided the statement for the project as I understand it at this moment.

©2013 Phil D. Nesmith

©2013 Phil D. Nesmith


This project inverts the photographic portrait of the modern soldier by imaging the relics and artifacts they selected, collected, and salvaged as markers of their own personal progression through armed conflict. The images, curated by the soldiers themselves, create an alternative vision of history as it is broadly painted by nightly news and history books.  These images are at once deeply personal and impersonal. They are objects that mark significant places, actions, decisions, consequences, and milestones, but also the more mundane yet more frequent realities of armed service.  These items are often labeled as war trophies or souvenirs but these labels are too often limiting of the wider range of functions the collected objects serve for the individual and their motivation for preserving them.  

I am interested in objects that take on the power of significance for individuals intimately and intricately involved with armed conflict, specifically the soldier, that at the end of their military life finds themselves with collections of objects, collections that are not categorized as such for the person to whom they belong.  What motivates them to reach down into the dirt and pull a piece of shrapnel from the earth and place it in their pack, to be carried, transferred, stored, and shuffled about for years to emerge a lifetime later and sometimes only in private.   What of the talismans and charms crafted, assembled, gifted, and sometimes found that are worn against the body as part of some conscious or subconscious personal protection ritual?  Biographical objects can and are used to record, validate, and transmit an individual’s personal history or myth. Yet little is known or shown of modern soldiers’ biographical objects.  This is an interesting revelation given the past decade of  “warrior” worship found in the United States after 9/11.

Most of the objects in the series were necessities, or near-necessities for the situations at hand when they were used, but removed from the context of conflict they can often be described at trash or simply “surplus”.  It is the act of saving, packing away – the selection for preservation that hints at something deeper about the soldier him/herself.  These objects construct a web bridging matter, meaning, and personal narrative, and collective history.  These objects, which have been squirreled away in trunks, ruck sacks, duffel bags, kit bags, and foot lockers, used in a context of conflict have become objects of fascination and endless consideration.  

More words and images can be found at the following links:

The Things

War Rubble

Shrapnel – Mortar


~ by Phil Nesmith on December 5, 2013.

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