On the walls of the Porter Faculty Gallery hang the honest and unpolished windows into the life of a veteran, spanning from the moment of deployment to the uncomfortable transition process back into civilian life.

“From War to Home: Through the Veteran’s Lens” features images taken by veterans of their everyday experiences — from feet in the Costa Rican sand to an Afghanistan landscape, from a beloved pet to a row of pills on a counter. These pictures are a therapeutic way for veterans to tell their stories of emotional hardship and reach out to the rest of the world.

Visitors viewed pictures depicting intimate scenes from different aspects of veterans’ recovery upon returning home. Photo courtesy of Shelby Clemons.
Visitors viewed pictures depicting intimate scenes from different aspects of veterans’ recovery upon returning home. Photo courtesy of Shelby Clemons.

“One of the main goals of the project is about building bridges of understanding between veterans and civilians,” said project director and anthropologist Gala True, Ph.D. “Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re coming back to a society where most civilians are completely untouched by these wars.”

The original project, funded by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), is based in Philadelphia and is displayed in the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. After seeing a presentation about the exhibit by True, Oakes College provost Kimberly Lau felt it would be fitting for UC Santa Cruz to host a part of the exhibit.

Lau said that years ago she attended a Veterans Education Team Support presentation, during which a Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program intern spoke about the ways in which UCSC’s campus climate was a bit hostile toward student veterans, often making them feel excluded or even unwelcome.

“One of the things that really struck me was that she said veterans at community colleges often discourage each other from even applying to transfer to UC Santa Cruz because of our [anti-war] reputation,” Lau said. “I was really disappointed to hear that.”

Lau, after gaining sponsorship from all 10 colleges, collaborated with Sesnon Art Gallery director Shelby Graham. Graham brought in Mark Pinto — a San Jose State University photography student and Marine Corps veteran — to help organize the exhibit at Porter. Pinto was selected to choose which of the many pictures from the original exhibit to display in the smaller UCSC version.

“I wasn’t looking for the classic photographic images,” Pinto said. “What I was really looking for was that element of raw truth, that kind of compelling story. I was looking for something that could resonate.”

Out of 80 pictures, only a small fraction were selected for display in the gallery.

“Some are just everyday stories, some are stories you just wouldn’t think of,” Graham said. “But they’re not Hollywood stories.”

The captions accompanying the pictures are simplistic and often profound. They tell a story that helps give more insight to the picture. One African-American veteran took a picture of some medical paperwork listing his ethnicity as “white,” with a caption saying how coming back made him feel like he didn’t exist.

“It’s kind of a quiet show,” Graham said­ — and it is.

The pictures — some small, some merely camera phone quality — move through different sections in the gallery, including deployment, transition, resilience and care.

In the corner of one wall is a chalkboard, allowing viewers to respond to the exhibit, make their own contribution or just scribble nonsense. Currently scrawled on the chalkboard are anonymous messages like “22 veteran suicides EVERY DAY” and “The Warrior is Divine; War is Inhuman,” as well as childlike sketches and a game of tic-tac-toe.

Both Pinto and Lau hope “Through The Veteran’s Lens” helps close the gap of understanding between civilians and veterans and encourages an environment in which veterans can feel welcome at home.
“If you really want to make a more inclusive campus, we have to distinguish foreign and military policy from veterans’ experiences,” Lau said.

The exhibit runs until May 10. Porter Faculty Gallery hours are Tuesday throughSaturday 12-5 p.m. and Wednesday 12-8 p.m.