To civilians war is hell. Guns and ammo. Fire and death. The slow march towards oblivion surrounded by the calls from the other side of existence, bathed in dirt and suffering. War is the stuff of nightmares for civilians. For soldiers these things are true too, but on the ground it's far more complicated. Relationships are forged in this crucible, the madness of life becomes simpler in a way, moments are distilled and objectives reveal themselves. In this struggle many find a way to serve, a direction to focus on, a path. When Platon began photographing Army recruits at the beginning of their training, his goal was to get a glimpse at what they go through. What he found was a meditation on loyalty and sacrifice. "I wanted to find out what happens when you're asked to do something and you do it - and it's very dangerous, and the sacrifices you make,” Platon explains to NPR. “This is where I learned about the other side of leadership, which is service." In his new book 'Service,' Platon delivers to us what he found and teaches us perhaps how we should understand the 2% of Americans who uphold the mantle of this service.
Platon started this project at a training center in California known as ‘Medina Wasl,’ photographing service members before they deployed to the Middle East. What he found there was harrowing, but even he didn't realize at the time that he was shooting a series of "before" images. It started at ‘The Suck,’ Medina Wasl’s nickname, but the stories started in these images would play themselves out unseen in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East, and many would find their way back to US soil and in front of Platon's camera again. "They were deployed. Then they come back and it's all different," Platon says. "So it became really human. It stopped being about the military and war, and turned into this human story that I never really expected it to be. I ended up taking pictures of love in the second half of the book."
For soldiers returning from duty, love is a complicated notion. They've returned from a place where IEDs are hidden everywhere and bullets slam into rocks and bodies without warning. In that place love is a part of life and death, the distance between the two written in a fog of dust and smoke. Survival is immediate and clear, leaning against their brothers, counting on them for their next breath. Their service is clear. But when they come back their path is less clear. That murky passage reveals itself almost immediately after the soldiers return from their deployment.
“I've done some emotional projects before, but not at this relentless pace, day after day,” Platon says. “The way I work is, I'm very subjective. I'm not the objective journalist who doesn't get involved. I'm not the ‘observer.’ How the hell can you be objective when you're in a widow's house and she's standing there in front of you and she's crying? You can't. You're in. You find yourself becoming part of the story in a weird way. The picture is a complete collaboration between me and the sitter. There's no stolen moment. It's a discussion – a visual lesson they are teaching.”