Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Obsessed! eBay’s Big, Big Winner

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Steve Ratner, the 52-year-old principal of creative service agency, Ivy Creative, is many things to many people—a father, a husband, a commercial producer, a print designer, a brand builder, and more. One other title to add to Ratner’s robust resume: PayPal frequent buyer. Ratner has been purchasing products on eBay since 1998. In fact, Ratner’s collection is so vast that the inside of his entire house is almost completely stocked with products bought from eBay and other consumer-based websites. SMITH talked to the Southborough resident via phone.

SMITH: Why the urge to purchase everything in your house off of eBay?

Steve Ratner: It wasn’t everything. My wife Amy and I purchased many things, but it certainly wasn’t everything. We were building a modern house, and I wanted to have a shot at putting the best quality stuff in it for the first time around. In order to do that, I went on eBay to save as much money as I could, so it was a monetary thing. You can spend $100 on a faucet at Home Depot, or, you can get a really good deal on eBay and put in a $70 faucet instead.

What drew you into the world of eBay?

I’m into modern design, and it was a way of finding items that you couldn’t find anywhere around here in Southborough. And by modern design, I’m talking about chairs, tables, stuff like that. And that’s how I started out.

What do your friends think of all the stuff you buy off eBay?

Oh, they’re fascinated. All my friends say that if they were ever going to be buying a new house, they’d ask for my help. In fact, I have a good friend in New York who’s building a house and asked me for some of the online companies I dealt with when I was building my own house.

So, what would you do if somebody read this article and saw what you did with your house and then decided that they wanted to do the same thing with theirs?

I’d think it’s a great idea. Look, eBay has really made inroads in our society and the way people buy things. I mean, you wouldn’t buy a $50 dresser on eBay and pay 100 bucks to ship it from California. You just wouldn’t do that. But, you would if, say, the item you were buying was something that you couldn’t get anyplace else. I don’t know how familiar you are with modern designers, but there’s a guy named George Nelson who created a bunch of items in the 50s and 60s and these items are the new antiques if you’re into modern design. So, eBay’s a great place to find items like that. You know, very special items.

Would you say you’re obsessed with eBay?

No. It’s just another way of purchasing. There was an incident where my wife and I went shopping for a high-end couch for the house and it was very expensive. There was only one place in Boston that sold this particular couch, and when we went there, the customer service wasn’t great. We didn’t get treated well, and it was just a bad experience. So I went home and knew I would be able to get it someplace else, even if I went to New York. So I went online and found a place in London where I could buy it, and it ended up being one-third cheaper than buying it in Boston. So I bought it in England and had it shipped here. That was a good experience.

Might you know what your next purchase on eBay will be?

You know what’s interesting? I bought some art on eBay—high-end black and white photographs—and it might be something like that. Maybe a black-and-white photograph landscape or something. There are a certain a number of galleries I’ve visited.

What’s your six word memoir?

I don’t need six, all I need is three…less is more.

Previously Obsessed with Web 2.0 Articles

Chris Thomas, Newsvine’s Newshound.
Richard Farmbrough, the Wizard of Wikipedia.

Iraqi Graffiti: The Photos of Todd Bowers

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

By Michael Slenske

SMITH contributing editor Michael Slenske's last story was a "Back Home from Iraq" feature on MoveOn's VideoVet winner John Bruhns.

Go to the Photos

As far as Iraq war vets go, Marine reservist Todd Bowers might be the luckiest. During a routine patrol on the outskirts of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, his civil affairs unit was called to a firefight. There, amidst heavy fighting with insurgents, they spotted three civilians caught in the crossfire. Bowers’ unit attempted to rescue them, but the skirmish was too intense. “There was some gunshots kicking up around me, I saw where they were coming from, so I dropped to my knee, fired back a couple times, then BOOM!,” recalls Bowers. “A bullet literally missed my head by an eighth of an inch. It hit the scope [an advanced combat optical gunsight, or ACOG, which Bowers' father bought for him with his own money]. I’ve still got a bunch of chunks of metal in the left side of my face.” Although he had blood pouring from his head, Bowers refused to be medivaced from the site without the civilians. “I threw them in the back of a Humvee,” he says. “Then jumped in the driver’s seat with my eye all bandaged up and drove over to Bravo Surgical to get them treated.”

Amazing? Sure. But Bowers returned home with much more than a crazy souvenir and a wild story. Knowing he’d face these kinds of indescribable experiences in Iraq, before deploying he planned to mirror a project his uncle Kendall undertook as an Army surgeon in Vietnam. When Kendall wasn’t saving lives, he was taking photos—graphic snapshots of wounded soldiers and close-call incidents in the MASH—that he later turned into a slideshow, dubbed Vietnam Graffiti. To offer context to the slides for the vets who viewed them back home, Bowers’ uncle added quotes he’d heard during his tour. “He felt the time you hear the most honesty from people is when they do graffiti on bathroom walls or port-o-johns and they write it anonymously,” says Bowers. “When I took a picture I knew that moment would be the one time I would hear what people really felt.” During his two tours Bowers snapped some 1,400 photos. His images offer an intimate view of the war: from immediate pics of Jessica Lynch’s convoy after it was attacked to ironic shots of the Fallujah Career Retention Center to panoramas of the Straits of Gibraltor sailing to Kuwait for the initial invasion.

“We deployed so quickly I was using little disposables at first. They actually worked pretty well. My favorite pictures are from the Ziggurat of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. You can tell someone what it’s like on top of it, but unless you can actually show them it’s hard to imagine,” says Bowers. “I even got pictures of when they delivered Thighmasters [to Fallujah]. We were getting humanitarian aid sent and we got in a bunch of Thighmasters—official, Made in Taiwan, Suzanne Somers Thighmasters.”

Two months after his second deployment, he made his own slideshow while he was living in Los Angeles, “sofa-surfing” at friends’ homes. Although he showed his project, Iraqi Graffiti, to a dozen or so people, and later to a couple Washington, D.C. art galleries, Bowers wasn’t comfortable taking the project public. “I got the vibe from people where they were like, ‘Oh this is so awful, the war is so wrong’ and I just didn’t want to get into that debate at all,” notes Bowers, who says the salve of time has helped him get comfortable with letting people into his world. “Things are not going well in Iraq. Everybody knows that. But all we see are the guns, bombs, and explosions. It’s hard to get a feel for what the dynamic is—where one second you’re playing soccer with kids and the next second your vehicle is blown up. I want someone to be able to watch this and say, ‘Okay, I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be in Iraq now.’ No politics, just being able to understand what soldiers and Marines experience when they come home.”

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

Fallujah, August 2004 "How the hell did I get here?" - Marine Jolan Park, Fallujah, January 2005 "Playgrounds can also be battlegrounds." - Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, November 2004 "There goes the neighborhood." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, September 2004 "The smiles make this all worthwhile." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "We destroyed the enemy and someones home. Hard to say who wins." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "Think there is any hope for these little ones?" - Eritrean Interpreter North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Books, Pencils, RPGs, AK-47s. All the basic school supplies." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "Does the "V" stand for peace or victory? Or just Bugs Bunny ears." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah Career Retention Center, September 2004 "I bet business is slow." -Marine Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 "We are going to need more brooms." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "I think he is scared of us?" -Iraqi Interpreter The Infamous bridge in Fallujah, November 2004 "This is where it all started." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, February 2005 "Sir, can we take this one home?" -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "This place is like a ghost town but the ghosts are real people." -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "Hi. I am here to help rebuild your school. Do not mind the rifle and grenade launcher." -Sgt. Bowers Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "I hope these kids have it better than their parents did." -Iraqi Civilian Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "These kids are eleven going on forty." -State Department Employee Fallujah, December 2004 "This book is more powerful than we will ever be." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, August 2004 "Some of these kids do not smile very much. I guess I would not either." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "I hope the owner is doing better than her doll is." -Sgt. Bowers North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Sorry we destroyed your city. Here, have a bag lunch and twenty bucks." -Marine Marine Camp outside Fallujah, September 2004 "I have got to make it home." -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "How will I tell anyone about days like this?" -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "These people hate us but they love our money." -Marine Jolan Park Election Site, January 2005 "I have seen polling lines before but never any wrapped in razor wire." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "There will never be enough soccer balls to hand out." -Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, March 2005 "I am going to miss this place, and the people." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, March 2005 "I am not sure where home is anymore." -Iraqi Civilian Jolan Park, Fallujah, December 2004 "Suzanne Somers is hot and all but why the fuck is she sending Thighmasters to Fallujah?" -Marine Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Southern Iraq, July 2003 Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Baghdad, May 2003 "All Donne Go Home. They could have at least have spelled done correctly." -Sgt. Bowers

Obsessed! Newsvine’s Newshound

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Newsvine launched in March 2006 as a new kind of community news site, one in which its readers suggest news stories, and even write them. The stories range from Iraqi bombings at an all time high to a principal throwing feces as students. No surprise then that Newsvine quickly became populated by frequent posters. And none post with the fervor of Chris “Killfile” Thomas, a 27-year-old web application developer from Christiansburg, Virginia. SMITH chatted with the newshound via email.
—Rich Knight

SMITH: What’s Christiansburg, Virginia like?
Chris Thomas: It’s a small town just outside of Blacksburg (home of Virginia Tech). For me, this is “enemy territory” in a sense. I graduated from UVA (Tech’s big rival) in 2002 and find myself introducing myself as the guy who went to the “other” Virginia University a lot. Old collegiate rivalries notwithstanding, it’s a nice little town.

Why the urge to write so many entries on Newsvine?
ChrisThomas.jpgWhen I graduated from UVA with a BA in History, I’d completed a degree in what I loved doing—writing and learning. But as I learned shortly thereafter, no one will pay you to write about the economic development of the post-Lenin Soviet Union unless you have a PhD. So, I went back to school and got a degree in computer science so that I could program, which, as it turns out, people will pay you for.

But, I still loved writing. For a while there, I had my own blog that no one really read. But when I stumbled upon Newsvine back in 2006, I found a community that enjoyed the same things I did. In that sense, it is not so much that I write many articles for Newsvine as that I write a lot and Newsvine has given me a place to put them and an audience to read them. I even get a cut of the ad proceeds from my column.

What kept you coming back to Newsvine?
The communal aspects of the site are more than a little bit addictive. Getting immediate feedback on everything you write, even comments and off the cuff remarks, really cements the notion of community and encourages participation. For me, that and the discovery of a group of similarly inclined writers, was enough and I was off to the races.

What was the first entry you ever wrote? Can you remember?
I can’t, but Newsvine can. It was entitled The Myth of Modern Communism (a rebuttal) and is still available on Newsvine. In a sense, it’s fitting that my first entry on Newsvine was a clarification of Marx, as that has been a battle I’ve fought over ever since. A lot of people have some very strong opinions about Marx and Marxist thoughts, but very few have actually taken the time to read his work. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter, but I know enough to be dangerous.

What do your friends think of all the time you spend on Newsvine?
They’re very supportive and at least pretend to read my articles. I think they’re a little amused and a little curious about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I used to think they didn’t really take my writing seriously or pay that much attention. But when the Virginia Tech shootings happened on April 16, I did a running column as events broke on the scene. Most of my friends remembered that I write for Newsvine and expected that I’d be covering the shootings given my proximity, and they checked in on my column to see if my wife (who’s a post-grad at Tech) was OK. My friends outside of Blacksburg checked it throughout the day for information—often well ahead of the mainstream media. My friends in Blacksburg kept me posted on what they could see on Tech’s campus. I think we all saw some of what social media is capable of that day.

If somebody found out you had the most entries and wanted to beat your record, what would you do? Would you pull all-nighters to retain your crown?
That’s already happening. Newsvine recently absorbed the regulars from the New York Times‘ forums and one of the new users from that influx, epiphany sorbet, is setting new standards for volume of work. It won’t be long now until she blows past me at her current pace, and honestly, I don’t mind. Newsvine consists of two types of user submitted content—seeds and articles. Articles are where I feel I’m strongest at and where I get to really have fun. Seeds are more of a “I found this, and it’s important” type of thing—like a link to a web site or a breaking news story covered elsewhere.

Since epiphany sorbet showed up on the scene, I’ve been slacking off on my seeding since she gets to most of it first anyhow. So I’ve been concentrating more on my writing instead. In the long run, that’s probably best for Newsvine; even though it will probably see me dethroned as #1 on Newsvine’s leaderboard in a few months. On the other hand, obsessive seeding is what put me at the top of the leaderboard in the first place. So, yeah, it’s a little frustrating to see everything I encounter in my morning news sweep already tagged, cataloged, and posted. Que sera sera.

Do you have any obsessions besides Newsvine?
I’d say no, but my wife will tell you “yes.” I’m a PC Gamer, but I refuse to get into the Massively Multi-Player stuff like World of Warcraft. I still love and enjoy history, particularly Cold War history, enough so that my cats are named Nikitty Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. I also work a lot with a group called Special Love that provides services to children with cancer. Given how far I drive for that and how often I find myself going, that might count as an obsession too.

Do you think Newsvine is a better source of information than your nightly news?
There’s an old acronym from the early days of computing that really sums up Newsvine. GIGO—Garbage In, Garbage Out. You get what you put in. If you just show up, read the front page and read some stories, you’re likely to get something on par with the nightly news though differently focused. If you really participate, argue, comment, write, seed, and get involved in the community, though, you’ll vastly expand your awareness.

That said, a huge chunk of Newsvine’s content comes from mainstream media. For every citizen journalism story that breaks something big, there are a thousand seeds to media outlets and stories by professional reporters. A lot of people will tell you that that social media is going to change the world, and that might happen someday. For now sites like Newsvine aggregate the news. They don’t often break it.

To that end, Newsvine serves much the same roll as the nightly news—a roundup of the day’s stories. But unlike the nightly news, if you want to dig deeper, you can.

Tell us a story about yourself that you haven’t told anybody in a long time.
Some time back, I used to work phone support for DISH Network. The discount satellite TV provider has a technical call center located in Christiansburg, VA. For a year and a half, my 750 best friends and I staffed the place, typically for the evening shift. If you or someone you love is considering a career in phone support, let me urge you to reconsider. I have never worked a more unpleasant and spiritually draining job in my life.

What’s next for you on Newsvine?
That’s a tough one. With the Democratic Congressional victory in ‘06, I find myself leaning pretty hard into the Democrats to keep their campaign promises and that’s making me an agitator from the far political left. I’m not sure how I feel about that status. At the same time, there are the primaries coming up and the race of ‘08 is starting to heat up now, too. Honestly, I don’t have a plan. I respond to things as they happen and, if something comes my way, I’ll address it as best I can. News is, as they say, the first draft of history. Being in the middle of it all, it’s very hard to see the big picture. Looking back over my work as part of this interview, I’m struck by the sort of meandering path I’ve taken thus far. I think trying to plan it would take some of the spark out.

What’s your six word memoir?
Life is short; eat dessert first.

Image Source Courtesy of New York Times

Previously Obsessed with Web 2.0 Articles

Richard Farmbrough, the Wizard of Wikipedia.

Back of the House: A Photo Essay By Michael Harlan Turkell

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

It’s easy to like Michael Harlan Turkell. When the New York City-based photographer walks into Public (voted Best Brunch by TimeOut New York, by the way) he warmly greets the staff, already hard at work prepping for the long night ahead. It’s a little after 10 in the morning. Turkell apologizes for running late (he’s not that late). He was at the Greenmarket in Union Square and walks into the eatery carrying bags stuffed with baby Chioggia beets, green garlic, baby fennel, sugar snap peas, and French breakfast radishes.

Turkell sits down, sips on his coffee, and smiles, totally at ease. After this interview, he’s going to photograph pickles for Wheelhouse Pickles in Long Island City.

Talk about a cool gig.

At 26, Turkell has done something that most of us only dream of doing. He’s managed to combine his two loves, food and photography, and create a job for himself that actually pays the bills. He’s a self-described “culinary photojournalist.” And he’s happy.

Turkell’s latest project, Back of the House, is a tribute to the men and women who work behind the scenes in some of New York City’s restaurants—the folks most of us rarely consider as we’re inhaling pan-seared, sesame-encrusted Ahi Tuna steak. He’s shot in more than 100 restaurants so far, including Public, Butter, WD-50, Masa, and Daniel. “I want to illuminate the back of the house, I don’t care to illuminate myself,” says Turkell. “I’m not doing the hardest part of the work; I’m just lucky enough to be around it. I’m trying to open up lines of communication.”

Previously selected for the upcoming 25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers to be published next spring, Turkell talks to SMITH about his series, a fish’s head, and life as a culinary photojournalist.

What kind of camera are you using?
The Nikon D200. It keeps the overhead low because it’s digital and you can shoot as much as you want.

When did you start taking pictures?
I didn’t even own camera until I was 21. I dropped out of the first school I went to. I went to [Boston University] for math and science and came back to New York and went to community college. It happened to be an elective that filled a spot. And I enjoyed it.

You used to work in kitchens, now you’re behind the camera full time, why the switch?
It was a combination of things. I had fallen and hurt my knee. I’ve had two ACL surgeries, so that constant pivot put that strain. The hours. It’s hard to hold on to not just relationships, but even friendships and acquaintances. All the people you hang out with are part of that counterculture. And I love the morning. I love being able to see the light of day. So I think the combination of those, and the fact that I was getting my BFA in photography, I thought, I might as well pursue this… And the way I wanted to learn, I didn’t necessarily want to be in one place. I was always looking for new opportunities, so it wasn’t hard leaving it because I know I can so readily come back to it.

How’s it going so far?
I’m still trying to get in magazines. It’s the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had. Cooking comes naturally to me, sometimes photography does as well, but the business doesn’t necessarily. I’m just trying to please the people. And I’ll bend over backwards for little or no pay sometimes just to make sure somebody is happy, and that isn’t necessarily the industry that thrives [in New York City]. But I like that I’ve been able to incorporate that hospitality that I learned in restaurants into photography.

Sounds like you’ve found yourself a dream job.
I’m still so interested in food and restaurants, and I didn’t want to stop learning. I pick kitchens and chefs and subjects because I’m interested in them. And I always wanted to have that as the defining drive behind my photography, that I’m actually interested in the subject that I’m photographing, that there’s some kind of deeper connection rather than a superficiality of the image.

It’s nice that I am able to get paid and also be in these kitchens that I wanted to cook in and learn from. It’s odd to say that I’ve actually made a job for myself. It’s still a struggle month to month, [but] I’m bombarded with work right now, which is a great thing.

Why did you want to capture the drama behind the scenes?
After having worked in restaurants myself, I know [the back of the house] sees little light of day, and also few accolades from diners. Not that I needed a pat on the back. It was just something that was never really shown or illuminated to people outside of the kitchen. It was easy to talk to people that I worked with, there was a comradery, there was a common ground, and understanding, but to tell someone what you did… there was very little illumination as to what went on. I thought it was an important thing to show and preserve. You always see food writers, but I didn’t see many—well, this is another self-proclaimed term—culinary photojournalists.

What’s the response been like?
I still shoot primarily shoot for the chef and for the people in the kitchen. And I’ll show them the photos, ask them what they think, if they think it’s a true depiction, and shows them in the right light. I will not show anything defamatory. There’s a true honesty in the industry, and I’m trying to keep that integrity so I only seek out places that I think have those values.

What makes a good image to you?
I think all of those values: honesty, integrity. I don’t think [the image] should have to be explained necessarily—that there’s a very distinct caption to it, that everyone comes to a common understanding of what is there, and something the people I took it with, among, and for agree upon. Not to say that an image has to represent some kind of majority. But I’m trying to create more archetypes, things that represent very specific points.

What do you consider off-limits to shoot?
It depends on the kitchen. If they say its off limits, I don’t photograph it. Once they feel comfortable with me, I don’t know if there’s much that’s off limits. There isn’t one specific thing across the board that everyone says don’t take a picture of. There are points in service where they’re like, “Can you stop,” and I’m like, “Of course.”

What’s the funniest or strangest thing you’ve seen through the viewfinder?
Once was actually right here [in Public]—it was around 9pm, which is usually a pretty intense time during service. It was busy, but a guy comes in the kitchen with a big black garbage bag—they call him Jersey Dan or just Dan, he’s a friend of the restaurant. He opens up the bag and in it is the head itself, of a yellowfin tuna, as big as my torso. I think it was a yellowfin tuna. But in the middle of service they just put it on table. I think they made a quick tartare. That was awesome. I think he’s brought in venison before—the whole deer. I think that was during the middle of service, too.

Ever miss the money shot?
No. I’ll just come back and try to get it another day. People are always going to eat. There have been plenty of times where I know I just missed it by a second, but that’s why I revisit and haven’t stopped shooting.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
Like everybody else, I love to travel. And I’m inspired by simple, little things—like a neighborhood in Brooklyn that I’ve never been to. One of my greatest passions is being a pedestrian sometimes, strolling about and looking at minutiae. Just constantly learning. Right now I’m trying to get a wine palate. My girlfriend works for Food & Wine, and I’ve always been a beer guy, so just understanding wines is overwhelming. But I know what I like now. And I love factoids and little interesting quips and phrases; I just like little idiosyncrasies.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
I don’t know yet. I don’t think I ever want a single image to represent me. I shoot in series and try to release them as such. And though you look to have one picture that encapsulates it all—it’s great to have that single raw ingredient—I like putting them all together. That’s what I like about this project, it’s completely amendable and malleable, and it has so much flex to it that it’s not defined yet, which is really nice. I like it all. I like the combination.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would it be?
I’m addicted to this guy Erwin Wurm. He’s very conceptual. He does these one-minute portraits. And I love all of the minuteness of it. The images speak to how quickly art can be made—and how long it can last afterwards.

What are the sites, photocentric or not, that you most love online? This guy Matt Bites he’s not only very fun to read, but he’s also an art director/photographer, and his images are just outstanding. But I hate saying web site this, web site that. I’d rather tell people where to go.

Where should they go?
In New York City, the Greenmarket, go to the Greenmarket, and rather than see something and buy it because you think its hot and fresh, taste it too. There are amazing specialty food stores. There’s a place called Sahadi’s, which is a spice trader on Atlantic Avenue. Awesome. Kalustyans, which is here in the City in Murray Hill. JB Prince for kitchen supplies. Kitchen Arts and Letters in the Upper East Side, it’s not just an antiquarian cookbook store, but they have some of the best international cookbooks. The James Beard House. They do dinners. Visiting chefs come from around the world, and you can go have dinner and taste an amazing array of foods.

Catastrophe, Crisis, and Other Family Traditions: The Photos of Jessamyn Lovell

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

Jessamyn Lovell’s series, Catastrophe, Crisis, and Other Family Traditions, is a family portrait that is sure to strike a nerve with almost everyone. The Oakland, CA-based photographer’s work takes an honest look at her family, flaws and all. Lovell, a professor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA, began photographing her family as a way of coping with the “stress, frustration, anxiety, and guilt” she felt due in part to her home life. Lovell has created 10 different photo albums—albums dedicated to a family member, their home in upstate New York, animals, landscapes, or even Lovell herself. “When I recognized that I was part of them, and therefore partly my own subject, I started to turn the camera upon myself more and more,” she says.

Each of the 30-year-old photographer’s frames evokes something different from the common (Klare ready to eat) to the intense (Mommy taking insulin) to the off-beat (Allsun with chef knife). Lovell’s work is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s wonderful book, Winesburg, OH: both allow outsiders to enter a world that’s incredibly complex, compelling, tragic, and touching.

SMITH talked to Lovell about Catastrophe, Crisis, and Other Family Traditions—and her mother’s gun, too. —Kathy Ritchie

What camera do you work with?
I use a variety of cameras. My mother gave me a Pentax K1000 when I graduated from high school because I had been using a loaner throughout my senior year. At the start of grad school, I got a Calumet 4×5 and use that a great deal still. I also use Holgas and a Diana, but I primarily use my Mamiya 7 and Contax G2 now.

Why did you decide to capture your family on film the way you did?
I began photographing my family not as subjects, but as sort of way to survive the pain I was experiencing. I used my camera as a journal of sorts to negotiate a relationship with them. [Eventually] I stopped seeing my family members so much as one entity and considering each individual more separately. I also stopped looking at them from the other side of my lens and started to record the relationship that exists between all of us, as well as the stories that have unfolded throughout our history.

This project has shifted to become a way to explore and record our collective history, as well as the choices and paths we take as individuals.

There are sets of photos of various family members, which is your favorite?
I love each set for different reasons. At times, I think the ones of my brother are the strongest because it clearly shows him growing and changing over time. My all-time favorite image has got to be “Mommy with gun” because it shows her defiance and independence, while still showing her vulnerability.

What’s the message here?
I see my work as a personal documentation of an American family struggling with class, religion, and disability. Although I deal directly with these issues, a wide variety of viewers can relate to family tragedy and crisis. The essay also looks at the daily lives of my sisters, adopted brother, mother, and my relationships with each of them. I am investigating the relationships within the family, as well as each member’s ability to transcend the circumstances we were given. I feel that by allowing the world access to this self-examination, viewers are able to gain a better understanding of disability and poverty.

Your site is very personal and very intense. How have strangers responded to your words and images?
I’ve recently realized just how vulnerable a body of work like this makes me, especially with such detailed information so publicly accessible. Many people have responded with stories of their own and want to make a connection or hear more stories. Overall, most folks who respond to my site seem to enjoy reading about the stories and relating them to the images. This is exactly what I hope to do with the book I am working on.

And how has your family reacted to your work?
My whole family—especially my mother—has been very supportive of my project and genuinely seems to understand why I’m driven to make and show the work. It’s my version of our story, but I include their words and collaborate with them to get a fuller sense of the stories and histories, even as they unfold. My sister Allsun was most against my photographing, and even stayed out of the images for a period of several years. As the project has unfolded, and she has really examined what I am doing. She has said that she is proud that I’ve taken our experiences and turned them into something positive. I can honestly say that this project has brought me closer to my family, especially my mother.

What makes a good image to you?
Content and concepts that are important to the photographer is crucial for a strong photograph. An image that that stands out and creates a reaction in the viewer. It can be ever so subtle or dramatic and jarring. Either way, a good image usually serves as a window into another world or way of thinking.

What do you consider off-limits to shoot?
When someone asks me to put the camera away or not to include [him or her] in the frame.

What’s the funniest or strangest thing you’ve seen through your viewfinder?
My sister Klare pumping up the tires of my mother’s wheelchair in Wal-Mart with a borrowed tire pump.

What’s the one fish that got away?
It was spring when Mommy first decided to finally sell all of the animals. A local farmer came with a big truck to take the 25 plus goats, one donkey, and Don Jose, our pet llama. My brother, AJ, helped round them up and herd them into the truck. Everyone got in except for Don Jose. They tried really hard—they even tried shooting him with a tranquilizer gun. The farmers got tired and finally said they would come back soon to get the remaining llama. Weeks went by and the farmer never came, so Don Jose remained in the yard.

It was around that time that Don Jose first started getting out. We could see him leap very high into the air, clearing the wire fence again and again. He was just too quick and too large to catch. A neighborhood farmer became impatient with our family for allowing the llama to roam the neighborhood. Don Jose was apparently caught several times wandering into this farmer’s bean field. The farmer told us that the next time he caught Don Jose in his bean field he would shoot him.

Sure enough, we were driving home and we caught a glimpse of the farmer chasing our llama with a shotgun at the ready! We all paused and Mommy started to cry. Shots rang out, and suddenly out of nowhere, Don Jose came running up to our house. I quickly corralled him into the fence and shut the gate. The farmer came up the road and into our yard yelling. He was obviously drunk and really pissed off, not to mention waving his shotgun around at us.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
The works of photo greats like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, August Sander, as well as many of my peers, friends, family, and the struggle people go through day to day just to survive. My students.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
My brother in his true element—away from the family.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would you want it to be?
August Sander or Diane Arbus.

Where are you happiest taking photographs?
Cheesy places like in the woods or on the beach.

Is photography your only full-time gig?
I consider myself to be both a photographer and an educator. I just finished my first year in a full-time tenure track teaching position at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. My position at DVC feeds my career, as a photographer and vice versa.

What are the sites, photocentric or not, that you most love online?
Boingboing; Magnum Photos; Alec Soth; Salon; Conceptual Art; We Make Money No Art;; Banksy; No One Belongs Here More Than You; Wooster;

Killing Us Softly: The 21 Best Karaoke Videos Online

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

It was a mission that we wouldn’t wish on anyone else, but attacked with feverish delight: find 21 great homemade karaoke videos. After scouring the approximately 4.2 billion online, we found a few gems, a lot of near brilliance, and three that are so bad that they are good.

What do you think? Vote below.

After you vote for your favorite, send us your karaoke chronicles’ unforgettable nights, songs that rocked the house with a link to your own video, or someone else’s that the world needs to know about.
—Rich Knight

Vote now!

home alone

Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head

I Just Died in your arms tonight

Saving All my love for you (my personal favorite)

Another one bites the dust

Bellied Up To The Bar

Girls just want to have fun.

I got you, babe

It’s not unusual

Rock Lobster

Dream On

Welcome to the Jungle

Money For Nothin’



Burnin’ down the house

Rapper’s Delight

Killing me softly

Somebody to love

Good Vibrations


More than a Feeling

Private Eyes

What’s your Net obsession?

The Wizard of Wiki

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Ever wonder who those people are who leave all those reviews on Amazon? Or who seem to find time to post 25 new YouTube videos a day, or link to story after story on Digg? In a new series of interviews, SMITH unearths some of the people who have made many, many contributions to the Net, each in their own particular way, while remaining mostly under the radar. Where better to begin than the wild, unwieldy, and wonderful world of Wikipedia? Meet Richard Farmbrough, a 45-year-old technology project manager living in Stamford, England—and the man with the most Wiki entries since its launch on January 15, 2001. SMITH contacted him via email.

SMITH: What’s Stamford like?
Richard Farmbrough: Stamford is a pleasant market town in the East of England region, it is generally affluent, and near the city of Peterborough. It has good transport links and an interesting history—see the Wikipedia article of the same name.

Why the urge to write and edit so many entries?
Wikipedia is such a good resource, it seems a shame to let gaps remain unfilled, or errors go by uncorrected. This is also in keeping with a community value indicated by the neologism “sofixit”—in other words, on Wikipedia, you are empowered to resolve problems, rather than relying on someone else to do it for you. Of course, some things require collaboration through talk pages and the many wiki-projects that cover everything from specialist subjects to article clean-up and helping new editors find their feet.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia?
Like most Wikipedians, I started with a minor edit, on a “talk page” (a page where an article is discussed). In my case, I increasingly found that I was, at that time, in a position to add to, correct or create many articles. After some time, I started reading the documents about Wikipedia and how it works, and realized that we were creating good content but with lots of stylistic, spelling, grammatical and other gaffes.

Wikipedia has a Manual of Style, so I read that, and started fixing “violations” wherever I came across them—such as by effectively proofreading, and to some extent, sub-editing. I became frustrated with finding the same errors again and again, and created tools to help find and eliminate them. Round about then, I came across Wikipedia “bots,” or robots, and started using one to fix common errors. That’s under a separate account and is, I believe, the Wikipedia editor with the most edits.

What was the first entry you ever wrote or edited?
My first article edit was to Modafinil a keep-awake drug I was investigating at the time. It’s pleasing to see the short article that was there then is now a substantial overview of the drug. The first article I created (you can’t really say you “wrote” an article on Wikipedia, since they are never finished, and have many editors) was Projective frame which is about a mathematical concept that has also been improved substantially–and the same day (I must have been getting into my stride) Ohio House of Representatives with a couple of lines, that are now a reasonable article, Spaghetti House siege substantially as it is now, and Black Liberation Army which again has grown to a reasonable article from my couple of lines.

What do your mates think of how much time you spend on Wikipedia?
Actually, I don’t spend all that much time on Wikipedia. I rarely get involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff; although, as an “administrator,” I get asked to help deal with vandals and disruptive behavior. Nor am I involved, at the moment, in anything that takes extensive research. Most of my edits (but by no means all) are minor clean-ups that take a few seconds—that’s the main reason I have so many edits.

If somebody were to find out that you had the most entries and wanted to beat your record, what would you do? Would you pull all-nighters to retain your crown?
I would encourage them to make sure that their edits were adding something of value. “Editcountitis” is a well-known affliction in the Wiki community, and to try and reduce it, I would freely state that I consider many editors have made more valuable contributions to the ‘pedia than I have. Of course, it’s “nice” to be at the top of the (human) list—especially as I considered it completely out of the question to be in the top 100 when I first saw it. But really, it’s not that big a deal; I don’t mention it on my user page, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to my family or friends.

Do you have any other obsessions besides Wikipedia?
Well, I am not actually obsessed with Wikipedia, despite appearances! If I am obsessed with anything, it is continuous improvement. I see Wikipedia as an example of this, as well as my own personal and family development. And the charity I’m involved with, which is trying to improve the education system.

Do you think Wikipedia is a better source of information than going to the library?
In some ways. The question only makes sense if you state who is looking for what, and which library is involved. For example, if you have a university library available to you, you will get more and better information on most subjects, except, perhaps, popular culture. If you only have a small-town library, you can probably find out as much or more from Wikipedia on many subjects, but it will be “chunked” differently—it might not be easy to learn calculus, certainly not Linux or Anglo-Saxon from Wikipedia (although, there are sister wikis which address these types of needs). The Wikipedia community has a strong belief in maintaining the goal of building an encyclopedia, rather than a how-to resource, a dictionary (though there is also Wiktionary) or “an indiscriminate collection of information.”

Tell us a story about yourself that you haven’t told anybody in a long time.
When I was about eight or nine, I was given a Junior Pears Encyclopedia–a single volume of about 600 pages. Not long after that, I decided it would be extremely useful to have a “book of everything,” since there was clearly a lot of ground missed out in this one. My book would probably have to run to several volumes, perhaps five or ten. I started by preparing some re-cycled envelopes where I could collect information, “The Elements” “The Solar System” “Napoleon” and “Nelson” were a few. Realizing I knew very little about Nelson and Napoleon, I made a trip to the largest local library I could get to, took one look at the biography shelves, and realized the futility of my endeavor. Twenty something years later, the Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular have re-awakened that boyhood dream.

What’s next for you on Wikipedia?
I’d like to create a mathematical model of the trends, to investigate how we best go about keeping the vitality of the enterprise without compromising content. It seems to me that while Wikipedia may be the embryonic form of something we don’t yet understand, it may also suffer from stultification and rot; when all the “easy” articles have been written and polished, who will keep an eye on minor jazz singers dates of birth.

If you could describe your experience as a Wikipedia writer in six words, what would they be?
Cool, frustrating, satisfying, friendly, challenging, educational.

What’s your Net obsession?

My Father and His Daughter

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Katherine Sharpe is a SMITH contributing editor, editor of a literary magazine 400 Words, as well as an editor at Seed Media Group.

During my childhood, my father was reluctant to buy himself new things. It’s not that he couldn’t afford them. We had plenty of money–not tons, but enough to pay for our own house, a bungalow with two-and-a-half bedrooms and dark bull’s-eye moldings around the windows and doors. Both of my parents had jobs: my mother as an English professor at the community college, my father as a lobbyist for an environmental group. Still, my father went around with holes in his undershirts and socks, and cardboard buffering the holes in his wingtip shoes.

I remember my father dressing for work. He wore white 50-50 undershirts with short sleeves, several of them with so many holes that they looked like cobwebs slung across his back. My father’s large and pinkie toes peeped out of his dark nylon socks. The jersey fabric hung away in baggy arcs from the band of his tighty whities. I remember these things because my mother complained about them from time to time. “Your father won’t buy himself new shirts,” she said. “And he’s starting to look like a bum.”

Nightly, at the dinner table, my father would spill something on his shirt or tie. A blot of tomato sauce or a fleck of butter would leap from plate to fabric, and then my father himself would leap up from his chair, bellow with rage, and dash to the sink to flush water over the offending morsel. Sometimes he would come back to the table with a water-darkened spot on his front. Other times he would retire to the bedroom, making loud, angry sounds as he rubbed detergent into the stain and changed his shirt. This performance seemed to repeat itself night after night, with uncanny persistence. Maybe my child-brain has distorted the memory, making something that only happened a few times seem to have been a regular occurrence, but this for me is the archetypal family dinner of the time.

Mostly what I remember from these spilling episodes is my father’s anger. It was never “Oops.” It was “God damn it. God damn it!” My father’s shouting voice is powerful and rich in bass. For a kid it can be frightening. But he always returned to the dinner table, and we always finished our meals more or less amicably. He was not angry at us. It’s not us he was angry at.

From that era I also remember my father coming home from work. It seems to me, looking back, that it was always dark outside when he came home, and always raining. It’s like this: My father wears his black wingtips and a tan trench coat. The trench coat is dappled with rainwater. I hear him come through the door, the weight of his footsteps on the pine floor. I drop the blocks and toys I am playing with in the back room, and run to throw my arms around his legs. My father is a tall man. I feel the bones in his legs and the raindrops cold on his coat, as I press my cheek into his knees.

Then my father comes into the kitchen. My mother stands near pots that bubble on the stove. The kitchen glows with the yellow-orange tones of lamplight reflecting off the dark wood floor, the brown melamine counters. The windows seem to have steamed up on the inside with condensation. We are having chuck steak with Worcestershire sauce, baked potatoes, green peas. We are having broccoli. Or chicken baked with canned tomatoes and slices from a roll of sausage. Or slender pork chops fried up with condensed cream of mushroom soup, and carrots cut into fat pennies.

In the kitchen, in the incandescent light, my mother and father embrace. He throws his arms around her. She squeezes back. They kiss on the mouth, but it is only a peck. My father’s tall frame bends down to my mother’s short one; she lifts her face up to meet his. Mostly, though, they just hold each other. My father’s height seems to take up all the vertical space in the room. “Oh Suzy,” he says. His day was hard. He’ll open a can of Black Label and, half an hour from now, he’ll spill condensed cream of mushroom down his blue oxford shirt and yell, God damn it!

In the mornings my father would sit and roll his coffee cup across his forehead, to ease his sinuses with the warmth. Simple enough: he had clogged sinuses; the heat helped. Still, there seemed to be something more to this gesture, too. As he rolled the mug across his forehead, my father gave off an aura of suffering. It wasn’t just his sinuses; he seemed to feel sluggish and blocked in a more global way, too. I see this looking back. It was inchoate then, but something I noticed, without the words to think it through.

My father was also a bather. He showered in the mornings, but sometimes he took a bath after work or on the weekends, for relaxation. He ran his baths very hot, and let the water run to the brim of the tub. He’d work the water taps with his toes, letting a trickle of straight-hot water flow constantly, to keep the temperature up as he marinated. He had cut a board to the exact width of the tub, so he’d have a surface to read in the bath or scribble on papers. Sometimes, for work, my father was called upon to go to conferences and give speeches. Even as a small child I understood that speechwriting was an ordeal for him. He fretted over it. My mother fretted over his fretting. He would retire to the bath for hours with stacks of paper, flipping them, marking lines out with a pen and adding notes in the margins. Steam on the walls and mirror again. Great gusts of humid air blowing down the hallway when he finally emerged. Post-Its with crabbed handwriting everywhere.

I didn’t realize what my father was like until he changed. Only after the change was I able to look back and identify the feeling that he gave off as anything other than an inevitability concerning either my father or fathers in general. There was a heaviness to his movements then, the way he came in the door after work, removed his cold, rain-flecked trench coat and hung it on top of the lumpy, over-full coat rack in the corner. A heaviness to the way he sat in his morning chair, rolling coffee across his forehead, or in his bath, shifting humid papers with worried concentration into piles.


PERHAPS I AM BEING UNFAIR TO MY FATHER. He was like this. But people are complicated, of course, and he was like many other ways too. There is a picture in the family album. It’s a black and white eight-by-ten, which my mother snapped on her old Minolta. In the picture, I am three. My sister has just been born, and on this night, as the four of us are relaxing together in the living room, I am enjoying a respite from my new, big-sisterly jealousy. Someone has given us a package of novelty sponges shaped like the letters of the alphabet. My mother sits on the salt-and-pepper tweed sofa, my father and I on the hideous piebald shag rug on the floor. Everyone feels fine, even silly. Dad and I begin to play with the sponges. The letter ‘C’ fits on my nose, like a soft clamp. ‘G’ fits, with a little more stretching, on Dad’s. I laugh, and he laughs, crinkling his nose, the pores stretching and changing shape with his smile. We add letters to our fingers, toes, and ears, collapsing in the photo in laughter and delight.

I can’t remember when my dad changed, how old I was at the time. He changed because he went to a doctor and the doctor prescribed a pill for him to take. This wasn’t therapy, just a pharmaceutical affair. After go-rounds with several medications, my father and his doctor settled on an old-fashioned antidepressant that worked well for him, and my father changed, and that was that.

I don’t know how much of all this I understood at the time. But I do remember the change, how it was at once vivid and gentle. I remember the sense of the end of one era and the beginning of another: I turned into a sullen twelve-year-old and then a teenager. My father wasn’t cool anymore. We didn’t play blocks. I became too large and too old to ride on his shoulders and sit on his knees. He got a better job and, instead of returning home rumpled and splashed with rain, he began to stride confidently down the brick walk of our new house, past the rhododendrons, in to dinner. One day a sensory memory hit me, of the way that my father used to come home, moving as though someone had sewn gravel into his coat, and I remembered that those days had once existed and that they now were gone, the gleam on the dark wood floor, the steam on the windows, the games, my childhood, that era in my father’s life and the life of our family.

People who take antidepressants are fond of saying that their medication makes them feel “more like myself.” I suspect that this is, in part, a way of lessening the fear that taking a drug might make one less authentic. But I also think that it is an attempt to state a true feeling that people who take antidepressants have.

We said it. I remember my mother saying it at the time: he seems more like himself, somehow, now. And I understood instantly and intuitively what she meant. He seemed more like the man captured on film horsing around with his wife and daughters, clamping foam letters to his nose.

I don’t know if it’s really that simple to “feel more like oneself.” The statement that antidepressants make one more like oneself is a partial but not a whole truth. Both men were my father, himself: the warm, happy young dad with the alphabet sponges, and the sad man with the constellation of holes riddling the back of his thoroughly expired undershirt. Medicine allowed us to experience more of one version and less of another. It didn’t make my father a different person; it made him spend more time in a particular register of his personality.

Three weeks ago, I visited my parents at home. I spent a couple of hours in the car with my Dad, and our conversation ranged over many things: my attempts to become an adult without qualifiers, his new-retiree’s reflections on working and family life. He’s radiant these days, enjoying freedom, teaching himself how to make fine wood furniture. He says that he feels good about the work he did, his marriage, his children. He has not been making himself feel bad, as he has done in the past, by telling himself about the things he ought to have done or the contributions he ought to have made. Anything he would have changed? I asked, tensing for the answer. “I do regret having spent so many years being depressed,” he said, in his distinctive slow, deliberate way. We looked at each other, with love and a sudden bit of sheepishness, and then we both returned our eyes to the road.

Beyond the Hoods: The Abu Ghraib Images of Daniel Heyman

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

The hooded figure. That’s the image of Abu Ghraib that began living in our heads when The New Yorker published photographs taken by American soldiers along with Seymour Hersh’s historic Torture at Abu Ghraib article three years ago. By this point, the image has been significantly deadened—flattened and stylized into angry, well-intentioned iconography, the stuff of editorial cartoons and T-shirts. In becoming a symbol, it’s been detached from the gut-wrenching detail of its own origin story.

“I tried to use that image as a shorthand to comment on torture,” recalls artist Daniel Heyman , who began working on renderings of the hooded figure into silkscreen prints and etchings shortly after The New Yorker publication in spring 2004. “But it started to become ubiquitous, and I think it lost its ability to have much impact.”

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

The above portfolio includes drypoint prints from Heyman’s work in Amman and Istanbul, as well as watercolors from Istanbul. For more information on Heyman and his Abu Ghraib work, visit

Its initial impact, however, was never lost on Heyman, who became fervently engaged in anti-war political debate. And then came an opportunity to throw back the hood of symbolism in his artwork and bring the stories of Abu Ghraib front and center.

A serendipitous meeting with Susan Burke, lead attorney in a reparations lawsuit against civilian interrogators and translators at Abu Ghraib, led to an invitation for Heyman to join Burke’s legal team on a trip to Amman, Jordan. There they would take depositions from former prisoners, and Heyman’s work could move beyond symbol and into story.

Heyman spent six days in hotel rooms in Amman during March 2006 listening to a dozen men and one woman recount abuse and humiliation. He also joined Burke’s legal team for a second set of depositions in Istanbul that August. Working quickly onto copper plates from which he would later make prints, Heyman captured words as well as images.

“I began drawing their faces as the interviews got under way, listening to the reporting of biographical information through the translator, the number of children they had, where they lived, but mostly concentrating on getting a good start on the portrait. They were often in prison many months, and the nature of these interviews was a recitation of the entirety—as much as they could remember—of all that time. So I had to listen, and wait and pick a moment to start writing that might capture the essence of their experience. As soon as I started writing, often with just a few lines established in the portrait, I focused completely on the words.”

“When I have made portraits of people in the past, I was never as concerned with the inner history of the sitter,” says Heyman. “I used the sitter’s image to convey a separate aesthetic idea. Years ago, I made larger narrative paintings that had particular stories attached to them, the sitters in front of me inhabited characters much the way an actor becomes someone else for the duration of a play.”

“But these particular people’s human identities had already been removed twice: first as wrongly accused and brutally tortured prisoners, second in the photos their captors took of them, hooded and faceless, where they became global icons but lost their individuality. I wanted the Iraqis to regain their humanity, to regain their faces and their voices.”

Nonetheless, says Heyman, his own perspective is embedded in the work: In drypoint etching the copper plates to make the prints featured in this portfolio, he had to transcribe his subjects’ words in reverse so they would be readable when pressed onto paper. The stories Heyman shares were written as if in a mirror. —Jim Gladstone

Back Home From Iraq With John Bruhns By Michael Slenske

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Michael Slenske's last Back Home From Iraq feature was on Sean Huze.

“I think the real power from veterans comes from their experiences. When just regular vets have their voices heard. When the administration says one thing and they say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve experienced something totally different.’”

If you ask John Bruhns, he’s “no hero.” Even though he switched his non-combat MOS (military occupational specialty) to an active duty infantry unit after 9/11 because he viewed it as his “generation’s Pearl Harbor and wanted to fight.” He wanted to fight even though his Kansas-based infantry unit stormed Baghdad in the initial invasion. He wanted to fight even though he then spent the next year training the new Iraqi military and delivering detainees to Abu Ghraib prison. He wanted to fight even though his unit was responsible for responding to any violent activity in the Baghdad area, handling “forward-operating security, foot patrols, Bradley patrols, Humvee patrols, searches and seizures, raids, you name it.” To him that’s just par for the course for your average Army Sergeant in Iraq.

But it doesn’t take a Medal of Honor to be a war hero. And that might explain how Bruhns, who now works in veterans advocacy with VoteVets in the Washington, D.C. area, became the subject of’s new Oliver Stone-directed ad calling for a stop to the war. As part of its VideoVets project, MoveOn interviewed 20 Americans—vets and their families—asking why the war needs to end. While all of the videos are moving and certainly worth viewing, Bruhns’ came out on top when MoveOn members cast votes for their favorite earlier this month.

“I actually didn’t think my video was the best one,” says Bruhns, a moderate, if modest, Philly native who started speaking out against the war and even testified before Congress about the truth on the ground in 2005. “I think what stood out about my video was that there wasn’t really anything political about it. It was a simple video about a soldier who went to Iraq. My experience in Iraq totally conflicted with what the administration presents to the American public. I just portrayed that I wasn’t fighting terrorists over there, I was just fighting Iraqi people. And I think that had a lot of power.” SMITH caught up with Bruhns when the ad went on the air and found that you can staunchly oppose the war without opposing the troops in the slightest.

You started speaking out immediately when you got back home. What prompted that?
When I was in Iraq I realized there were no weapons of mass destruction, they had nothing to do with 9/11—the Iraqis, Saddam—nothing to do with al Qaeda. So basically every reason they sent us in there for they were wrong about. And I kept hearing the justification for the war and the justification from the administration was, “This is the central front in the war on terror, we’re fighting terror, we’re fighting al Qaeda. These are the people that we’re fighting.” And I was looking around saying, “Not me.” The people of Iraq are trying to attack me, because they don’t want me here, they hate me. That was my experience. There wasn’t any al Qaeda. I don’t want to sound redundant, but that’s how it was.

How did you first get your voice heard?
After I got out of the service I relocated to the Washington, D.C., area, and I started knocking on doors trying to get any members of Congress to listen to me. And I really didn’t get their attention until June of 2005. There was an “Out of Iraq” Congressional Hearing. There was the far-left liberal groups there, and I didn’t belong to that. I don’t
have anything to do with that element. But I approached Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I said, “Listen, I was a soldier over there, and I could offer some insight of what the reality of the situation on the ground is.” She was leaving the hearing room and told one of her assistants to get me a chair. I sat down and started telling my story, what I saw. We exchanged information, and I was contacted by one of Maxine Waters’ assistants, and he said, “Could you come to another hearing and testify about your experience there?” I put together a written statement for him that I read at the second part of the hearing. After that, Marcy Kaptur took my speech over to the House and read a portion of it on the House floor.

Would you say you’re involved in the anti-war movement?
I’m not anti-war at all. I can’t help how people see me on television or people see things I write on the Internet, and they put them on their blogs. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I am not anti-war, I’m not a pacifist, I’m just against the Iraq war. I’m against this war.

How do you feel about the current anti-war movement?
I personally disagree with the mentality of soldiers who return home from Iraq and wear half of their uniform with a pair of jeans or Hawaiian shorts. And they put black magic marker on their desert camouflage top and try to revive that type of 60s anti-war movement. I think it’s more effective if you conduct yourself in a professional manner and speak rationally and coherently and share your experiences in a professional way. I think that will get you further than if you go to Capitol Hill and disrupt a hearing and get arrested.

What’s the difference between the anti-war movement in Vietnam and the one to stop the Iraq war?
Right now you have so many different groups. You have Iraq Veterans Against the War. My main problem with that organization is that they allow vets in their organization who’ve never been to Iraq to call themselves Iraq vets. I get disgusted by that. Why are you out on the street calling yourself an “Iraq vet against the war” when you haven’t been there and had not had to endure the hardships we (Iraq Vets) had to endure? I don’t want to get in a quarrel with IVAW. I don’t believe in pitting vets against vets, especially because both of our organizations share the common goal of bringing the war to an end…we just operate differently.

The difference between VoteVets and an organization like Iraq Vets Against the War is that they’re an anti-war, pacifist organization and they strongly resemble the anti-war movement of the late 60s and early 70s. At VoteVets we’re a solid group of veterans who conduct ourselves professionally, we’re not anti-war, we’re pro-military, and we believe in fighting for this country. The war in Afghanistan was right. Iraq was the wrong thing to do. The time for more troops, that ship has sailed. Now it’s just how we’re going to get our troops out reasonably and responsibly. You can’t say we’re going to give Iraqis democracy with 130,000 troops, and when that doesn’t work say, “Okay, we’re going to send in 30,000 more.” They have to want it for themselves. We completed our mission a long time ago. To keep them there indefinitely is irresponsible.

Do you think we’re having a problem affecting change because we’ve been clouding the personal narratives with politics?
In a way it is. A lot of veterans feel strongly about the policy, how the administration is conducting the war. It’s not a good policy. In a sense politics somehow gets into the discussion. But I think the real power from veterans comes from their experiences. When just regular vets have their voices heard. When the administration says one thing and they say, “Wait a minute, we’ve experienced something totally different.” I think that appeals more to the American public, because we’re not foreign policy experts. I don’t have a master’s degree in political science. We’re not all Capitol Hill staffers or elected officials. But what we do have is our experience, and no one can take that away from us.

Oliver Stone directed the MoveOn ad with you and Ron Kovic. What was it like working with them?
I think Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic both care deeply about veterans. I might not share all the views they have, but we do all support the troops 100 percent. Oliver Stone acknowledges the current situation in Iraq is not working. I think he sees similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. This bothers him, this situation in Iraq, and it compelled him to participate in this project. I think the link comes by the fact that they’re both veterans. Oliver Stone is a pretty big name in the film industry but he volunteered, served his country honorably in Vietnam. He received two purple hearts and a bronze star. Oliver Stone is a hero. I’m not. I’m no hero. I just went, and I saw, and I came home, and I’ve been speaking out about my experiences. Ron Kovic might not have the same ideologies as I do, but the guy took three bullets and gave three quarters of his body to his country. As far as I’m concerned he’s more than earned his right to his opinion. And I respect his opinion.

Have you got any feedback on the VideoVets ad yet?
Sure. I was on my way back home from L.A. and somebody stopped me in the airport and said they saw the Oliver Stone segment on CNN. They thanked me for speaking out. And one of my neighbors stopped me in the parking lot when I was getting my mail and thanked me for what I was doing. At the same time, those are just two examples. I totally acknowledge that there are a lot of people out there who disagree with it and who are going to try and turn it around on me and make it look like I’m not supportive of the troops and that I’m some sort of turncoat, which I think is ridiculous.

How does that work? Don’t troops have the moral authority here?
Ever since we invaded Iraq. I think in the very beginning of the war the Bush administration was very successful in selling the war to the American people when we first went in there. Tim Russert just outlined it when he was talking with George Tenet, and Russert put a poll up that said 70 percent of the American people had approved of the initial invasion. They scared the public into believing Saddam was an imminent threat, and then when we went into Iraq, you had Shock & Awe, and you saw pictures of soldiers in the streets, fighting in Iraq. You had people in the streets beating their chests and waving their flags. Then you have this image of the Saddam statue getting ripped down. Everybody felt so patriotic. Anybody who criticized the war was anti-troops. The administration hid behind the troops, they hid behind the flag, and made it almost impossible to confront them on Iraq. But now it’s just so blatantly obvious that they misled us into war, and if they didn’t mislead us they were just dead wrong about everything, just wrong and incompetent.

Were you expressing this to troops you were there with on the ground?
To my close friends, yes.

Did they share your sentiments?
Not at the time.

What about people back home?
I remember I went to a Kerry-Edwards rally in 2004 in Kansas City. This is a really important story. I was probably the only soldier from Ft. Riley who’d gone there. And when I got there I got surrounded by a group of young men. They were carrying signs that said, “Vote For Bush,” and they saw that I had a Kerry-Edwards button on my shirt. They called me a traitor, told me to move to France. They told me I support terror. They told me to get out of this country. That I don’t deserve to live here. And I’d just come back from Iraq and that was what they said to me, “Get out of this country and move to France.”

Did you have a response?
I bit back pretty hard, hard enough for them to leave me alone. I took a little bit of heat in my unit because I supported John Kerry and John Edwards. I put a sticker on my car, but I didn’t really care. I find it really fascinating that your average army infantry grunt or Marine grunt could identify with the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These are two guys, both of them, that went way out of their way to avoid the war in Vietnam. And 40 years later these guys find themselves in a position of power and start a Vietnam of their own. And then when anyone disagrees with them they fire back with, “You don’t support our troops.”

The nature of the VideoVets project suggests that the public still doesn’t get something about the war. What stories of your own speak to that notion?
There was a night in Iraq where a roadside bomb had gone off and it disabled one the Humvees our scout platoon was driving around. Luckily nobody was injured. Part of my job was to respond to any disturbance in the area, so they called my squad out there, and some of the local Iraqis said that the people who planted the bomb were in the house next door to them. So we went in the house fast and furious, gathered all the people in the house and put them in the living room. There was a diverse crowd—some old men, some women, some children, there were some men in their 30s, and some teenage boys. Everybody was scared. I wasn’t scared. I could tell we definitely had the upper hand. We had 10 troops in there, locked and loaded, fingers on the trigger, and we had this machine that could detect bomb-making residue on the hands of insurgents.

Everybody was saying, “Should we arrest these people?” And I noticed everybody was scared except for one person. There was a kid in there, maybe 13 or 14 years old; and when I looked at that kid he scared me to death. Because when I looked at his face I saw that he had no fear at all, none. He looked like if he had the chance he would slit my throat right then and there. So I ordered him to be arrested, and they took that kid into custody. They said, “Why?” I said, “Look at him.” He was fearless and had this disgusted look on his face. So they took him back to our unit and our soldier tested his hands and radioed back to our company that he had the highest reading for bomb-making material that the machine had ever got. And this was a kid. A 13-year old kid. He was not al Qaeda, he was not a Baathist. He was a teenage boy who was making bombs and setting them off in our sector trying to kill U.S. soldiers. Now, George Bush will stand up on TV and say, “This is the central front in the War on Terror.” And a lot of the American people just don’t realize that’s not the reality of the situation there.