Uniforms are powerful. They can tell us who someone is, where they work, and what kind of authority—or lack thereof—that they have over us. One needs only to look at the increasingly disturbing images of Ferguson’s riots, and the increased militarization of the police force, to grasp the significance a uniform can play in the public’s psyche. It’s all too easy to perceive all officers as having the same identity, but we know better than that. So does photographer and ASU sociology student Devin Mitchell, whose ongoing photo essay the Veteran Art Project was created in part to show the humanity on the other side of the shield.
“You never really know who the person is in the uniforms,” says Mitchell, who spent the past three and a half months visiting veterans in their homes and photographing them in and out of uniform as they face the mirror. Using Photoshop, he’s fused the two separate images together to highlight the double identity many veterans feel like they have to straddle. On one side of the mirror, the subject is a soldier; on the other, they’re a person like anyone else.
“A lot of veterans feel they’re misunderstood,” explains Mitchell as to why he began the project. “And they don’t have a voice or platform. Even though these pictures don’t have audio, I feel they still speak very loudly.”
“I think the veteran community can be somewhat polarized in terms of how they identify with their uniforms,” he continues. “Some veterans identify more with who they are as a person, while others identify more with their uniform.”
The series includes images of openly gay and transgendered servicemen, as well as mothers, young women, and the wounded. The photos are sometimes at odds with the stereotypical notion of a solider.
“One of my more striking experiences was working with Leyla Webb who is Muslim,” says Mitchell. “I feel like there’s a lot in the media that gives commentary on that religion, without acknowledging the fact that the exact same people who participate in certain religious practices are the people who defend the nation.”
Mitchell says he’s been surprised to see how many veterans have now reached out to him to share their stories. (Right now, the California-based student is limited to those who are within his gas budget range.) “I think many of them want to show the mainstream who they are [underneath the uniform],” says Mitchell. “Others want their pictures to speak to other veterans, to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there too.’” He says future commissions will deal with subjects like PTSD and the havoc it can wreak on the veteran community.
Most Americans (99.5%, according to recent data) will never serve in the army—but that hasn’t stopped the masses from drawing conclusions about the 2.5 million who choose to do so. Just like our mothers always told us, Mitchell’s moving portraits are proof that it is best not to judge a book by its cover. Or a person by their uniform.