“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” Francis S. Fitzgerald
“AMERICAN DREAM, This is not a dream” is a timeless piece, as the issues it raises are not new, but fundamental and embedded in the history of all civilizations. Power and war are universal and, unfortunately, too often misused. This series is dedicated to all the soldiers and veterans that care about making the world a safer place. Thank you. Peace.
When I created this piece, the Iraq war was turning from bad to much worse. Already into year three of struggling to keep the situation under control, the Bush administration was still asserting that things were going in the right direction.
Internally, the relationship between the soldiers and the American leaders was deteriorating at a fast pace due to the misrepresentation of this war and the unexpected difficulties encountered with both the logistics, and the militias, on the ground and the lack of assistance when back home. It was not until 2007, when the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal broke out, that this major issue was clearly talked about in the news.
The media ban placed in the early 1990s during the first Gulf war was reinforced worldwide again in 2003 by the Bush administration because of the deep divisions within the American public on the war in Iraq. Once again, the population was held back from knowing the truth about the war and the fate of its soldiers. The people were not well-informed and did not realize that, even if equipped with the best technologies, their young were dying in great numbers. Paradoxically, what proliferated at home, were the advertising campaigns to motivate young people to enroll in the army. These propagandist campaigns were running in magazines, newspapers, on TV, at movie theaters, in the streets…everywhere. Their goal was to attract new recruits, using social benefits as bait, while intentionally omitting to depict what would likely be the real price to pay.
In a country where the Dream Concept is very important, these “attractive” campaigns were the perfect way to legitimatize the war and give hope to young people that they too could be elevated to the rank of national heroes. Until the Obama administration withdrew the media ban in 2009, we never saw any wounded, dead soldiers or coffins coming back home, and the causality counts remained a blur.
While on tour of duty, some of the soldiers became skeptical about the true reasons why they were there. They developed into victims of a system that created them. Systems that mislead them and that didn’t really provide them with the expected technical and psychological support while abroad. Once back in their homeland, it was difficult for them to get the necessary medical/psychiatric treatment, or financial support, to resume a normal life and overcome PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
These facts were very upsetting and triggered an urge inside me to create this piece as early as 2006. It led me to translate my emotions visually and to explore not only the concepts of patriotism, war, authority, abuse, propaganda, freedom, hope, dreams and death. I also asked the inexhaustible question, “How do things appear to be and what are they in reality?”
To achieve this undertaking, I decided to base my piece around the American military recruiting campaigns and utilize two important elements: symbolism (mainly represented here with the use of the blindfolds) and the complex and interesting theory of “The Treachery of Images”, significantly explored by René Magritte in the iconic painting, CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE.
The following explanation introduces the elements that I have used to create “AMERICAN DREAM, This is not a dream” and what they stand for. This text doesn’t intend to deeply analyze the piece itself, as the viewers will certainly discover more layers than those that I am pointing out here.
This artwork is composed of two series of five portraits of soldiers facing their own image. One series is in color and the other in black and white—a common way to symbolize the past and the present. The use of the same individuals in both series, which could make reference to two different eras, reinforces the idea of repetition. Its main goal is to convey that history repeats itself because people easily forget and make the same mistakes over again.
I have introduced in “AMERICAN DREAM, This is not a dream” the “mirror concept” through both the face to face placement of each soldier and with the use of the inverted letters on the blindfolds of the black and white series. The symbolic meaning embedded in a mirror is perfectly appropriated here because it is usually associated with the notions of truth and opposite of truth, as well as with the thoughts of self consciousness and the open door to another world.
These soldiers are blindfolded with the American flag in the color series and with black blindfolds in the black and white series. Blindfolds are the main element in these photographs. They have a very symbolic meaning here and enable me to introduce reflections such as, “What are the boundaries between patriotism and brainwashing,” “What is the correlation between power and its abuse,” and, “What is the relationship between authority and freedom?”
In the color series, I have used the American flag, which is a symbol of freedom and patriotism. The United States is probably the nation in the world that displays its flag the most. It is used on anything possible like tee shirts, coasters, beach towels, pens, bags—even if it is not really legal in the flag code to do so., Paradoxically, the flag has somehow lost its original meaning and strength.
For this reason, when I started to work on this project, my first idea was to use this popular symbol and bring it back to its original context: the Military. It was clear, that I would use it in a distinctive way, with a powerful meaning but also with great respect.
Often in official military portraits the flag is displayed behind the soldiers. In this version, it is actually on the face of the sitters, blocking their sight, thus translating visually that the truth has being hidden from them. In real life, the only time that the flag is covering them is when they fall during the war. Then, it is displayed on the casket throughout the tribute ceremony.
During wars, blindfolds are commonly used to force the captured enemy to conform. Sight is very important and when it is missing, individuals immediately become vulnerable…The same way I wanted these soldiers to appear in my portraits. They are proud but they are no longer in power. They become submissive, conditioned by the system that they believe in (or believed in). A system for which they as good patriots were ready to give their lives for “A good cause”.
The soldiers featured here are intentionally young, handsome and well groomed, as they appear in the advertising campaigns or television commercials developed by the military to attract new recruits.
These portraits could also be compared to those that the soldiers send back home to their loved ones. Everything is perfect in them, they serve their original purpose: mirroring their strict military discipline. The soldiers wear their immaculate service dress uniforms and stand straight and serene in front of the camera, just as they would in front of their superiors.
I wanted these portraits to be visually non-violent but still powerful and disturbing. As well, I felt that they should somehow have a poetic quality, so that what they represent is human struggle and suffering—the essence of war.
The light is very important in these photographs. Besides being beautiful and flattering, it translates the dramatic aspect of this piece. A bright light in front of them would logically show them the right path and also bring them strength, hope and awareness. Instead, it is behind them and recalls the light flowing within a tunnel. Instead of showing them the way out, it reinforces the idea that they are going towards ignorance, darkness and death!
It is also important to notice the shape of this light. It creates a halo behind their heads, which emphasizes the idea that they are innocent victims, almost like saints. The glow above their heads represents that their spirit is leaving their body, as if they were going towards death and starting to reach heaven.
The five soldiers are perfectly lined up, as if standing at attention. It is one more way to evoke that they are captive and probably about to be shot down in cold blood, blindfolded, with their hands attached behind their back.
Based on Magritte’s semiotic study, The Treachery of Images, I decided to explore this complex theory in the context of this war, where things had obviously been manipulated by the heads of the government, and the military, in such a way that they appeared to be the total opposite of what, in fact, they were: a Machiavellian way to legitimize this war of interests.
From the beginning, I wanted to use the sentence “Ceci n’est pas un rêve” (this is not a dream) to express the subjectivity of people’s experience towards similar things and events, but particularly towards war.
It also, brings to mind other questions like, “What is a Dream, after all,” “Why are human beings so egoistical and cruel to each other,” and “Why would they want to turn the dreams of others into nightmares?”
To allow my concept to work properly with the use of the sentence “Ceci n’est pas un rêve”, I decided to feature five soldiers that would represent both the four major American military corps—the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, the Marines—and also, the United Nations.
Since the United Sates is the country that pre-eminently reflects diversity, I decided to feature the four main ethnicities: Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Caucasian.
Stating, “Ceci n’est pas un rêve” on their badges in the color series, was a way for me to keep them anonymous. Usually, these badges are used to display their surname. In order to break the code and read the sentence, the five portraits need to be presented together and in the right order. This sentence is very symbolic and takes us back to what war is really about: atrocity. This is not a dream but a nightmare. Indeed, a sad reality. More than anyone else, those that first become aware of it are the ones who are standing on the front line: the soldiers. Plato’s quote (427-347 BC), “Only the dead have seen the end of the war,” summarized the core of it very well.
In the black and white series, I have featured the same words but on the blindfolds. This time, the words are reversed, like in a mirror, which makes reference to the “mirror writing” technique that Leonardo da Vinci used for his codex. The reversed words give the illusion that the whole image is mirrored but that is not the case. In these two series, only the words written on the blindfolds are reversed. It is a way for me to bring the viewer back to reality and to prove that images can indeed lie, as Magritte demonstrated in “The Treachery of Images”. The sentence was kept in French so it would more precisely recall Magritte’s study.
These words are intentionally facing toward the consciousness of the soldiers because the message is directed to them. It’s a symbolic way to say, “Wake-up,” and look at reality. This reality is standing right in front of them, embodied through the color series, where the American flag on the eyes symbolizes a patriotism that blinds them. These two series are complementary and bounce back to each other messages about consciousness of oneself and humanity.
The United Nations’ position on this issue also motivated me to include one of their soldiers. I have placed the word “UN”, which is part of the full sentence “Ceci n’est pas UN rêve”, on the pin badge of the United Nations soldier since he is probably the least recognizable. This is a hint to help the viewer identify him. He is also the only soldier that wears a camouflage uniform instead of a dress uniform, as it is the way they often appear during official ceremonies.
On the black and white series, I have featured bar codes on the badges to strengthen the feeling of anonymity. A number conveys the idea of some lack of respect towards a person. It is generic, like an object, which has no soul. It also reminds viewers of inmates with a number written on their prison outfit. These soldiers are somehow dehumanized, prisoners of a system that creates and governs them. These bar codes come from real ammunition packaging. In New York, I was able to buy them online. That introduces the major issue that the United States is facing with the conflicts about regulations on fire guns and ammunitions. All that in the name of profit, with laws made by lobbyists that are ruling our life!