War Photographer Trains Her Lens on Military Suicide at Home
Erin Trieb saw soldiers who’d made it through Afghanistan wrestle with life in New York—and she wants to be sure the rest of us see them, too.
by Allison Yarrow
The Daily Beast, Sept. 4, 2012
Erin Trieb hopes her photos of soldiers can help save some of them from the horrors that follow too many of them home from war—and that followed her, too.
One hundred and fifty-four American soldiers committed suicide in the first 155 days of 2012—claiming 50 percent more lives than combat fatalities in Afghanistan over the same span.
PTSD is often the culprit or a contributor, and it’s what galvanized Trieb to tell the stories of the troops who suffer — because she also believes she suffered from it herself.
The 30-year-old Texan says she caught the photo bug early, when her grandfather gifted her the vintage Graflex Speed Graphic camera that he had used to document the heroic efforts of the Red Cross during the Second World War.
After graduating college, she spent eight months in Israel capturing the frenetic wind down of the second intifada, where she says she and other female photographers experienced brazen sexual assaults.
Trieb recalls Palestinians awaiting the media’s arrival before becoming aggressors and throwing rocks, and felt that she and other photographers were responsible for literally triggering conflicts.
“Other journalists get off on it. To produce images like that was not genuine,” she says. “I had to step back and realize the country wasn’t for me.”
She returned to Texas, where her photographs of Kinky Friedman’s quixotic gubernatorial campaign in 2006 won her awards and subsequent calls from national news organizations like Newsweek and The New York Times.
But she wanted to go back to war, and in July, 2009, Trieb went to Afghanistan, where she connected in with Col. Kit Swiecki, a surgeon stationed in San Antonio, who she figured would be of interest to the Texas press. She ended up spending six weeks living in a tent in Logar Province along with Swiecki and his unit, the 8th Forward Surgical Team, comprised of about 20 people—medics, nurses and surgeons.
The images she captured from the operating room are arresting—patients whisked in on helicopters, prostrate on gurneys, bleeding, screaming.
But Trieb wanted to see what had caused all those injuries, so she extended her ticket six weeks and joined missions and patrols orchestrated by six different battalions. “To be honest, it was so fun. It was dirty and gross and hard. Maybe it’s because I’m a tomboy and like adventure,” Trieb says, describing sleeping outside in abandoned houses, going on missions in the middle of the night, and not showering for days.
‘I’m a sensitive artist and a woman. If these problems exist in me, I can’t imagine how hellish it would be for a 20-year-old kid who can’t make sense of any of it.’
When she returned to the states, she says she wanted to continue following some of the soldiers she had bonded with in Afghanistan. So she just started showing up at their base, driving the nearly six hours from New York City to Fort Drum to see them.
Over six months making trips to Fort Drum, Trieb says she spent most of her time there simply spending time with the soldiers, many her own age and younger, rather than photographing them. Unlike when she embedded with them in Afghanistan, they didn’t entirely understand what she was doing with them in New York, she says.
Read the rest of this story:
View more photos by Erin Trieb at New York Times Lens blog.
View more work from Erin Trieb at her personal website.
Read about Erin Trieb’s own personal struggles coming home after working in Afghanistan and at home photographing war-torn soldiers.
Filed under: Resources Tagged: | 10th Mountain Division Fort Drum New York, 8th Forward Surgical Team, Afghanistan, Col. Kit Swiecki, Erin Trieb photojournalist, Homecoming Project, PTSD, Spc Dirk Terpstra, Substance Abuse, Suicide prevention