This powerful and touching series was selected as a finalist in the Portrait category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.

There is an inherent beauty in humanity. A beauty that transcends the glossy, mass-produced images force-fed by the media. We reco
gnize it instantly: the human condition. Hope, despair, love, courage, fear. Such fragile beauty. I moved closer.

David Jay

“The Unknown Soldier” is a series of large scale (approximately 5 ft across) photographs of our young and severely wounded soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the years that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, I knew then that I needed to address an often unseen consequence of our (all of our) actions. I began photographing “The Unknown Soldier” series.

I photographed subjects across the country: in hospitals, (Brook Army Medical Center and Walter Reed Medical Center among others), in their homes and amongst their families. I was attempting to capture their life following their injury. The public is accustomed to seeing former soldiers on TV, running the marathon or swimming in the Paralympics. These cases are true but a bit distorting—a majority of our wounded soldiers are not seen by the public. They are struggling just to get by. “The Unknown Soldier” highlights those men and women less “seen.”

Ultimately, “The Unknown Soldier” is not about war. It presents an opportunity to open a dialogue about issues we are not necessarily comfortable with…and also issues that we are responsible for. The images can be uncomfortable for the viewer. It forces us to confront our fears and inhibitions about life, death, sexuality, sickness, relationships, etc. Reality is not always pretty. This is reality. Let’s address it.

I hope the images transcend the narrow and simplistic confines of “war” and encourage us to examine the way we engage each other—both friend and stranger—at its most basic, day-to-day level, as it is these subtle, seemingly innocuous interactions that will ultimately lead us either to peace…or to the continuum and carnage of war.

—David Jay

Editors’ Note:
This project was also singled out for distinction during the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2015 by juror Deborah Dragon. Each of the jury members selected one photographer from the entrants to be awarded a special $1,000 grant.

Juror’s statement:

“‘The Unknown Soldier’ is a powerfully honest look into the harsh toll that war takes on those who wage it. I was especially taken by the two images of “Nick” because they instantly gripped me with their moving depiction of courage, strength—and vulnerability—in a beautifully artistic manner.

—Deborah Dragon
Deputy Photo Editor
Rolling Stone Magazine, New York City, USA

The project was acquired by the Library of Congress for their permanent collection as a visual documentation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The images have also been acquired by the Phillips Collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

On October 27, 2015 David Jay was the recipient of the Lucie Award for Photographer of the Year: Deeper Perspective for the “Unknown Soldier” series.