May 07, 2011

Reed Bluestein (above) is 8-years-old. I met him this week while making pictures in the classroom of his second-grade teacher, Deb Leach.

Leach's daughter Rachel is the girlfriend of Army Specialist Vince DeJohn (also above) who just returned from a year of service in Iraq.

Despite not having met him, Leach's students have been exchanging correspondence with DeJohn for the past year; a Skype call was the one time they saw what he looked like.

Friday the students were led into the classroom with their eyes closed and upon opening them were met with DeJohn in the flesh. Bluestein was then selected by his teacher to hand DeJohn a gift from the class.

As DeJohn received his present, Reed Bluestein told him, "When I grow up I want to be in the Army just like you."

Reed told me later that both his grandfathers were in the military and Reed's mom, Kelly, who was attending, said her son has wanted to be in the military since he was three. Should he fulfill that goal, his mom said, "I'll be proud of him and stand behind him, because it's an honor to serve your country."

Less than a month ago, at, Sebastian Junger wrote in remembrance of his slain friend, photojournalist Tim Hetherington: "You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they've seen--movies, photographs--of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs."

Coming from an image-maker, that is a troubling idea, that images of violence could be teaching violence. But maybe the power of our visual landscape is obvious when we pause to consider the incredible amount of visual information we process, the movies we see, the video games we play, the number of wordless desire-stirring logos we can identify.

My previous post closed with the question, "what does a peace photographer report?"

It's a question that has stayed with me as I think about ideas for stories and answers.

So in a conversation outside the classroom, I asked Reed's mother, Kelly, how she defined peace. With thoughtful measure she said, "Happiness. Equality. Simplicity. And Love." 

I then asked her how she teaches peace and she said, "By teaching gratitude for your surroundings and others."

Back in the classroom, as things started slowing and most of the cameras and reporters had left, DeJohn was talking with Courant writer Melissa Pionzio. Specialist DeJohn, who "kept everything" the students sent him during his "year in the desert with a bunch of guys talking trash to each other," said, about navigating the classroom's unfamiliar terrain, "These kids all want my autograph."