Canadian War Museum: For wounded warriors the V is never for victim

Corp. Gorden Boivin. Photo: Stephen J. Thorne and Legion Magazine

The soldiers seen in The Wounded, a new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum, are varied and valorous, but they are not victims. It’s tempting to call them heroes, though that’s not the point. Photographer Stephen Thorne’s purpose was that the wounded be seen.

Thorne, who has for many years been a Canadian photojournalist and now works for Legion Magazine, lamented that the wounded are “the forgotten heroes of wars from time immemorial, all but invisible as they swim the seas and scale the mountains that their wounds, physical and psychological, have laid before them.”

He continues in an essay on the magazine’s website, “It’s the war dead who get the attention. And rightly so, the wounded will say. Most don’t seek sympathy or accolades in their sacrifice and struggles, triumphs and defeats. They emerge from the shadows to demand what is due, and recede again.”

Thorne crossed the country to take portraits of wounded men and women of Canada’s armed forces, to bring them out of the shadows using, appropriately, black and white photography. The portraits can be seen in a long, narrow space at the gallery, hung next to the veterans’ words and stories of war and its aftermath, stories that are equal parts inspiring and terrifying.

Corporal Andrew Knisley and Second Lieutenant Erin Moore. Photo: Stephen J. Thorne and Legion Magazine

André Renaud was part of the Royal 22nd Regiment in Afghanistan in 2007 when he heard an explosion about 15 kilometres away.

“I heard the explosion and I felt the shockwave,” he says.

A Canadian patrol had driven over an IED, and André wouldn’t know until hours later that his son Martin, a member of the same regiment, had been blown clear out of the vehicle to land metres away. Martin’s back was broken, and his legs so badly injured that one was amputated at the ankle and the other, after a two-year battle with infection, was amputated at the knee.

Justin Brunelle was south of Kandahar in 2009 when a member of his patrol leaned on the hidden pressure plate that set off an IED. Two Canadian soldiers and a local interpreter were killed instantly, and a half-dozen were injured, including Brunelle. Thorne accounts a gruesome inventory of damage: “His face and neck were torn apart, his left arm was shredded and nearly severed, and shrapnel had gone clean through his left shoulder. His skull was crushed, his lower lip was ripped off and his left eye was ruptured. His nose was caved in, his four front teeth were buried in the back of his throat, and his lung and sinuses were collapsed. He had burns and penetration wounds all over his extremities and lower body, where his body armour didn’t provide protection.”

Brunelle underwent more than 20 operations, one so long that doctors rotated in teams for almost three days. They used hundreds of staples and thousands of stitches to literally put Brunelle back together again. Dozens of pieces of shrapnel remain in his body.

Yet, Brunelle has held his sense of humour — “I get to play hockey. I play as poorly as I did before, so it really didn’t hurt my game at all.” — and an equanimity that astounds. “I’ve never met a cook who hasn’t been burnt in the kitchen,” he told Thorne. “It comes with the territory and I think I was ready for that.… It could always have been worse.”

Those words — “It could always have been worse” — could describe the experience of every one of the veterans shown in the 18 portraits included in the exhibition. They could have died, as, in some cases, they saw their fellow soldiers die. But they survived to fight physical and psychological battles beyond the imagination of most of us.

It’s easy to see why Thorne was so taken by these stories of injuries and inspiration, of trauma and triumph. It’s easy to see why he wanted to bring them out of the shadows, so to speak, and why he made the astute choice of using black and white film. The film is by nature a study in shadows, and Thorne poses his subjects as if they are emerging from them.

Thorne is not an artist but a photojournalist, and his prime motive is not art but documentary. He doesn’t costume his subjects, nor doctor the photos in any way that would be journalistically objectionable. He lets the people stand, or sit, as they are, because he understands that who these people are is impressive enough, and any manipulation in the name of art would be trite.

That’s not to say the photographs are not artful, by times. Étienne Aubé’s multiple wounds after an explosion included the loss of his right leg and two fingers on his left hand, and he poses with the hand over his chest, the two remaining fingers forming a V.

V for victory? For valour? It’s either, or both, but it’s never for victims.

The Wounded continues to June 2.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.