Art Talk with Sara Terry, founder of The Aftermath Project
A photo from the "Afghanistan: Not the War Only" series by Monika Bulaj, a 2010 grant winner from the Aftermath Project. Photo courtesy of the Aftermath Project
Imagine a media landscape where the consequences of a war?s aftermath are just as newsworthy as the conflict itself. The Aftermath Project already has, and with the help of visionary and renowned photographers, is producing work of noteworthy social and artistic merit. Under the direction of founder Sara Terry, the Aftermath Project awards two substantive grants each year to photographers covering the aftermath of war around the world, disseminating their work to educational, artistic, and political institutions throughout the country. This year, the NEA awarded the California-based organization an Access to Artistic Excellence grant to support production of its annual publication, War is Only Half the Story.
We recently asked Terry to share her thoughts about the Aftermath Project.
NEA: What inspired the creation of The Aftermath Project?
SARA TERRY: The Aftermath Project is a nonprofit program that grew out of my own work covering post-conflict issues in Bosnia, and I?m very convinced, as our one-line description says, that war is only half the story. I really wanted to see a change in the media landscape. We?re really good at covering disasters, and yet I think that?s really only one-tenth of the story of what happens in conflict. The stories that are about what it means to be human are the stories that happen in the aftermath of conflict. It requires patience, complexity, ambiguity, willingness, and the resources to work long-term, and there?s just not that kind of support out there for photographers?so I started the Aftermath Project.
By naming the elephant in the room, people could come around and support it and try to move the conversation forward in our culture. The yearly publication, War is Only Half the Story, features the work of the grant winners and the finalists from each year, and it gets distributed pro bono to about 400 people, including every U.S. Senator, peace-building programs, journalism programs, museum curators, editors; it?s our way of saying this work is about a conversation and we want you to join it.
NEA: How are the grantees selected every year?
TERRY: Our commitment is to a very high standard of photography, and it can be fine art or photojournalism. The proposed statement becomes equally important. So it?s skill, it?s photographic talent, it?s clarity and depth of understanding, it?s the actual aftermath issue, it?s the place in the world being proposed. And then, it?s how do those things fit together to make a conversation? If you?re named as a finalist, you?re important to us. Your work is published in our book, you?re in all of our conversations when we do our exhibitions or when we?re considered to be included in an exhibition. We feel as if you?re a part of the Aftermath family.
NEA: Do you consider your grantees photojournalists, artists, or both?
TERRY: I think every single photographer who has been part of the Aftermath Project is an artist. They?re not just seeing what the world is holding up for them to see. They?re not just going out and making images that everybody else is making. They aren?t taking the storylines of the media, the storyline of our culture, the storyline of history?they are placing themselves in the middle of stories and environments, issues, the fabric of a mental culture, and saying, ?I see differently,? ?I see this.? And it?s not just ?I see it,? because we all see things, but they make a photograph of it and in that act of creation they?re also creating a conversation. That?s the kind of conversation that is genuinely an act of art.
NEA: What is the role of the artist in the community?
TERRY: Neil Postman hit it on the head. He said, in this new era, in this digital age in which we?re being flooded with bits and bytes of data, information is no longer knowledge. Information is just a string of 0s and 1s. The overpowering flood of information does not give us knowledge, because there?s no way to make sense of it. And what he said is that now, more than ever before, our culture needs artists. It needs storytellers, poets, painters, photographers, writers to take this wild overflow of information and weave the fabric that helps us understand what is of value, what matters in the times that we?re living in. I think it?s about the artist relationships, it?s about creating avenues, paths, conversations that help us reflect on who we are and who we want to be?and maybe we don?t like who we?re being, and we can look at that and change it.
NEA: How has the NEA grant helped the Aftermath Project?
TERRY: I was waiting for the time that the Aftermath Project would be old enough, in nonprofit terms, to apply for an NEA grant. Our yearly book, War is Only Half the Story, is one of the most important things we can do in the world. I?m a big believer in micro-donations. But to have a grant from the NEA, people were going, ?Whoa, you?re playing at high levels there.? The grant is helping to publish the book, get the book out, hire the designers; I?m so excited that it?s going to the printers next week. And I think it?s our most beautiful book yet.