Note: The following short essay has been republished from the website of Aperture’s Portfolio Prize 2016.

The visual language of war, violence and terror has been directly yoked to technological innovations that mirror and propel mass media and its twisted reflection, propaganda. While this has historically been the case, the increasing speed of technological innovation has blurred the boundaries between targeting enemies, documenting damage, and guilty pleasure. Can the bursting of bombs be enjoyed without collateral damage? Do you love the smell of napalm in the morning? Or do you just enjoy the Francis Ford Coppola-esque celluloid evocation of it? Sean Thomas Foulkes’ series “Fragments of Engagement” brings us directly into this line of questioning.

Foulkes willfully walks a razor-edged line that both seduces and appalls. These are seemingly familiar images, but we have trouble identifying them; they float just out of reach. You might think you remember them from video games, movies, or television, but in reality, they are composites made from video frames shot by both U.S. soldiers and insurgent groups engaged with coalition forces.

They flirt between fiction and the most undeniable facet of reality—death.

Foulkes served a twelve-month combat deployment for the United States Army in Iraq—this fact simultaneously authenticates and destabilizes his work. Do these images reenact memories of the battlefield, or are they “real” captures of the world at war? “Fragments of Engagement” underscores how difficult it is to tell the difference between these two scenarios; it also brings the viewer face-to-face with the chilling degree of thrill that courses through us as we look through images of spectacular explosions and cool digital renderings of fleeing figures.

This sequence of reactions pulls us all into a shared moral quandary and forces us to reflect on the surreal and slippery nature of mediated violence. Ultimately, tragically, we are reminded of the incommunicability of the first-hand experience of war: as spectators, we see it, recognize it, and consume it almost unthinkingly. It is both—as is Foulkes’ work—the making and unmaking of the world.

—Lesley A. Martin, Creative Director, Aperture Magazine


Artist’s Statement:

Always remember to leave your running shoes unlaced and wide open
(and leave them in the same spot below your bed).

Less than a week in-country, I woke up to my first IDF alarm [indirect fire alarm]. I ran to the bunker in my underwear and crowded inside the tiny—but heavily sandbagged—concrete box with everyone else from my housing block.

I also remember how the smell of garbage incinerators and the local industrial village grew stronger as we crawled closer to Al-Asad Airbase in central Iraq—the destination for our weekly convoy security mission. We could clearly smell ammonia, and we all had ideas about what that meant. I assumed it had to do with some sort of horrid refining process long outlawed in the modern world. A few guys joked that it meant someone was cooking heroin in the village, or even on base. In reality, none of us knew anything about ammonia or heroin. Whatever it was, the acridity of it all meant we were almost home. It also meant a meal was coming.

Post-deployment social reintegration to my rural Montana community was a bizarre experience. I had assumed that peeling off my uniform was the hardest thing about leaving full-spectrum warfare, but as time progressed and the visceral memories faded, I was confronted with situations that were difficult to understand, and emotions that were impossible to communicate.

Every day I dealt with unforeseen trials: the loss of control in crowds every time I braved the bar scene, backfiring delivery trucks my first year in Boston, the rash of anger at a friend who became superficially disgusted at the sight of blood.

Nobody asked why the smell of ammonia made me hungry. They thanked me for my service in an obtuse—and anxious—way that left me with an unsettling thought: is this spectacle of obligatory patriotism more fascinating (and uncomfortable) than the spectacle of war they’re all so eager to apologize for? I have been asked, ”Have you killed anyone?” far more times than I’m comfortable talking about.

I spent the past few years accumulating, manipulating, and curating video stills from footage shot in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. All of it was recorded by soldiers on both sides of the respective conflicts. Some images are frozen within a few frames of a catastrophic kill event; others are collaged into landscapes that simultaneously mimic and interrupt the passage of time exhibited in the original footage. By re-contextualizing these beautiful and violent events of war, “Fragments of Engagement” is a visual essay that serves to imaginatively represent my own experiences as a combat soldier.

—Sean Thomas Foulkes


Editors’ note: Have a look at PAROXYSM, a ten-minute installation piece by Foulkes that features some of the explosions slowed down about 1/100th speed.

Foulkes was also featured in a narrative video produced by Montana State University’s magazine when he returned from Iraq.