Most stories about veterans focus on the difficult challenges many face, from unemployment and homelessness to the fact that more troops are living with severe injuries that ever before. But a new photo series focuses on their strength instead. The former soldiers pictured in the slide show above may be missing limbs, but they’re also amazingly fit, resilient, and moving on with their lives.
“I think people have seen other photographers do serious portraiture, black and white, showing the scarring–photos that are maybe more painful to look at,” says Michael Stokes, the photographer behind the project. “I think these are easier to look at because there’s some sort of hope. It’s not 100% tragedy.”
The project began a couple of years ago, when Stokes met a young veteran who had been wounded in Afghanistan and was inspired to photograph him in a way that reflected his optimism about the future.
“He wasn’t missing a limb, but he’d been in some IED attacks and had a brain injury,” he says. “He was 24 years old, and he was like, ‘I don’t want to sit around and watch TV all day. I’m 24 years old, I want to start my life, I want to do what other 24-year-olds are doing.’ And he can.”
The same is true for the amputees that Stokes has focused on since, like Bryan Henderson, who is missing three limbs, but still constantly travels by himself. “He has one of the busiest schedules I know,” Stokes says. “He’s capable. I think that this may be the part of veteran’s lives that people hadn’t been exposed to–and that is that these people have full, satisfying lives.”
The photos have been controversial, especially one that shows a veteran in a crucifixion-like pose. “I’ve been cyberattacked by all these religious groups,” Stokes says. Facebook has taken down some of his photos and locked him out of his page, sparking a Change.org petition. A recent photo of a female vet–who also has had breast reconstruction after breast cancer–was taken off the pages of many of his followers, despite the fact that it technically meets Facebook’s rules about nudity.
Stokes plans to keep going and is raising money on Kickstarter for two large photo books of the veterans he’s worked with. Next, he’s planning to travel to the U.K. to photograph veterans there.
“Many British soldiers were in an area that was really badly hit,” he says. “I’m not sure if Americans realize how much our allies have paid the price as well.”