Teri Fullerton: The States Project: Colorado
The first time I saw Teri Fullerton present her work, she handed out multiple self-published books to the audience to browse through while she scrolled through images on the projector. I was captivated by the courage in Teri’s images, from mining her online dating experience in public to being willing to ask the questions of what happens to today’s soldiers when they return from war zones. Her series After War approaches a difficult and painful story with empathy for subject and audience. I asked Teri a few questions about her work and process.
Teri Fullerton completed a Master in Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, a Master of Education at Portland State University, and a Bachelor of Social Work from California State University Sacramento. She currently holds the position of Lecturer at the University of Colorado, Denver and previously was an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and internationally.
She examines idiosyncratic topics ranging from Internet dating to the connection between awe and the sublime. Awe is described as that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. There is also a belief that we are currently experiencing awe deprivation due to factors such as less exposure to nature. Other topics of research include military families, soldiers that have gone to war and the actions of camouflage and the current research be done on moral injury.
My brother went to war. He was an Apache helicopter pilot.
Soldiers who return from war find themselves at a personal crossroads — their internal compass confounded by the search for normality after experiencing the surrealism of war. Once home they often aspire to be back with follow soldiers doing something of consequence. At the same time, they experience strong feelings of obligation to be with their families and loved ones.
The end result is a sense of existing in an “other” world, somewhere in between their experience as a soldier and their desire to return to their old reality.
Making formal portraits and videos of soldiers and veterans swimming in natural bodies of water and standing in landscapes are ways to explore this duality. Water is used as a stand in for displacement or ‘the distance of an oscillating body from its central position or point of equilibrium at any given moment’. The formal black and white photographs hint at the act of camouflage as a means, or result of obscuring things.
Inherit within this is the intimate exploration of what it means to feel disconnected from one’s former self after experiencing war. This is not the case for all, but it is for many. Soldiers return with visible wounds, but also with those that remain largely concealed; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and depression are the most common. Also, there is what the US Department of Veterans Affairs refers to as ‘moral injury’.
Describe how you started working with soldiers returning from war.
My brother went to Iraq for the first time in 2003 at the beginning of the “Shock & Awe” campaign. He was an Apache helicopter pilot. I was protesting the war and he was fighting in it. We are very close in age and in our relationship. He went back for a second tour a few years later. At this point, I had started an MFA program and began making narrative portraits of family members that had a loved one serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Making photographs of the family members of soldiers that have served in the Afghanistan and/or Iraq war is a way to have a dialogue with a surreal experience. Ideally, the photograph can serve as a vehicle to illuminate the myriad and shared stories of loss, separation, and hope. I was also interested in finding an approach that could connect people regardless of their political views. As the years dragged on, many of the soldiers of the families I’d photograph were coming home. It seemed only logical to make photographs of the returning veterans of war.
What is something you would like people to know about the veterans you have worked with?
The reality of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars remain abstract, faraway and mostly removed from the average persons day to day. A growing numbness protects us, especially when sprinkled with a dose of indifference due to overexposure. Perhaps it is what is being referred to as “compassion fatigue,” a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of your ability to care after continued exposure.
What does it mean today when you hear about yet another soldier that was killed in Afghanistan?
I make the photographs and videos to explore the ideas of what it means to go to war and how it affects people after returning home.
How do the soldiers you photograph respond to the project?
The soldier’s responses have been exceedingly positive, but of course, these are people that have agreed to be part of the project. The thing that has been the most surprising to me is how easily they agreed to make videos of them swimming in natural bodies of water. Typically, the soldier chose the of body of water that was of significance to their background. I made the underwater swimming videos of my brother in Lake Tahoe where we grew up. It just seemed to click with the soldiers; I wanted to explore the duality of never completely returning to your pre-war self. Water was the stand in for the place that is neither here nor there. I also think as individuals we have an inherent need to be seen and share our stories. This can be especially true for soldiers who have experienced war.
What are three things that inspire you most right now? It can be a book you are reading, a podcast, an artist, an exhibition…
Art! Paintings, sculpture, video, photography… I recently saw a Maya Lin gallery show in New York City. Its simplicity, beauty, and depth stayed with me. I believe she is best known for her work as an architect and her memorials, but it was great to see her sculptural pieces.
-Writer Louise Erdrich, especially the trilogy including The Plague of Doves, The Round House, and La Rose
-Independent cinema aka Beasts of the Southern Wild
You describe your new series Moral Injury as an expansion of After War. How are you expanding these themes?
The new series are landscape photographs, some with text or graphic interventions. The text comes from research regarding moral injury. It is what experts are coming to identify as the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation after experiences encountered during war. Many researchers consider it the signature wound of this generation of veterans.
Moral Injury is differentiated from PTSD. PTSD is more often associated with fear, whereas moral injury is equated to a violation of what each of us considers right or wrong and the symptoms include sorrow and grief.
Vast unpopulated landscapes activate the words. The landscapes that hold endless promise can also be latent with endless peril.
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Laura Shill: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 24th, 2017
Abbey Hepner: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 23rd, 2017
Teri Fullerton: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 22nd, 2017
Heather Oelklaus: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 21st, 2017
Ashlae Shepler: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 20th, 2017