We are 70 years removed from the end of humankind’s deadliest conflict in history—World War II. And while we can appreciate the constant distance we get from this horrific series of events, we must also face the fact that with this distance, we are losing the men and women whose experience in the war lived on in them, and so, too, are we losing their wisdom and stories. Jason Grow, portrait photographer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, took on a personal project when he realized the rapid loss of World War II veterans we’re seeing as this generation approaches their 80s and 90s. Jason sought out over sixty World War II veterans from the community to photograph them and honor the stories they had to share.
For me this was an opportunity to honor them and their service while they were still alive to share their stories.
According to Jason, Gloucester had a long history of military service, with 40% of the town’s eligible men, and sometimes women, entering the service. Nearly 200 Gloucester residents were lost to the war, and for Jason, this project was a chance for him to give something to those who were still alive. The first step was finding the remaining vets, a task made difficult in part because of their age—with an average age of 90, this group tends not to go out much—and in part because of the style of their generation—this group also tends to be humble and reserved, rarely vocal about themselves and their lives. Jason reached out to veteran organizations, but to find the veterans who were not active in these groups, he also made cold calls to families all around the area. As people started hearing about the project, they started putting him in touch with friends and relatives who had served.
Jason kept the lighting and background for each portrait simple. He wanted the emotion and expression of the vets to dictate the voice of each photo. Because the photos were taken in the vets’ homes, Jason did a decent amount of work clearing furniture to create space for the pictures. During the photo shoots, Jason asked the vets to tell him about themselves, present and past. He wanted this so that he could share their stories, and also so that their faces were illuminated by something from their memory.
I think the most compelling thing is that everyone has a story and if you take the time to ask and listen, they will share those stories with you.
Through fundraising and donations, Jason was able to raise enough money to get framed copies of the images, one set for the vets and one set for an exhibition in Gloucester’s city hall. The exhibition debut drew hundreds of people from the community, including about 40 of the honored veterans. People who hadn’t seen each other in years reunited at this event. And as Jason says, “most of these men and women had very normal lives at that point—they married, raised children—but for several years they were part of something extraordinary that defined the world for the next couple of generations.” The photos displayed at the exhibition included a piece of each person’s story alongside their image:
The response to Jason’s exhibit was strong. Family members, community members, vets themselves, reached out to Jason with words of thanks. Jason hopes to see the photos displayed again somewhere, and perhaps to create a commemorative book. But all in all, he feels that the goal of the project was achieved with that gallery debut.
Once they go, their stories will go with them and it’s those stories that help define who we are as a family and as a community.
To view more of Jason’s work, visit jasongrow.com.