US Marine Cpl. Philip Pepper, age 22, Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan

Kristen Gresh

The forthcoming anniversary of the World War I Armistice, known as Veterans Day, presents an opportunity to pause and reconsider war’s costs and outcomes, particularly for the individuals who have been on the front lines. This powerful portrait of American Marine Corporal Pepper was taken during his unit’s last month in Afghanistan in 2008. Between 2006 and 2010, Canadian photographer Louie Palu spent extensive amounts of time in Kandahar, Afghanistan, exploring social and political issues related to the conflict and its impact on human rights. Sensitive to the many complex perspectives and participants in the conflict zone, Palu embedded himself with Afghan, American, Canadian, and British armed forces; beyond his experience with the various militaries, he also worked independently.

Portraits are not traditional examples of war photography, yet they are the images that allow us to see a more personal side of war. While most press photographers may have reported on events, Palu poignantly focused on the human experience. He got to know the men in an American Marine unit and photographed each individual member out of the realm of combat, in an empty bunker. Fifteen portraits resulted in a series, now in the MFA collection, entitled “Garmsir Marines.” In this photograph, Corporal Pepper’s tired eyes convey deep exhaustion and attest to Palu’s ability to evoke, yet not reveal, personal stories during times of war. Revisiting this moment is especially timely given the recent insurgency in Afghanistan eight years since. Palu’s work is a reminder of the strength—and fragility—of those who have faced the violence and history of armed conflict in this particular region, and around the world.

Update November 8, 2016 2:39 pm

Artist Louie Palu shared additional information with us today: "This marine [Cpl Pepper] belonged to the 1/6 Marines at the time this photo was taken. His unit was created in 1917 for the First World War. More history can be found here." Thanks Louie!

Update November 8, 2016 6:58 pm

Among the 753 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here is a highlight:

marymcavoy Excellent post. Another exhibit I'm putting on my MFA must-see list. I agree w @missreinita21 above. [STOP War!!!]

Kristen Gresh is the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs.