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Jordan VanSise

Sony International Photography Finalist, Returned  War Veteran and Marylhurst Art Major

Jodan VanSise is an art major at Marylhurst University, and is the only university student in North America to be named as a finalist in Sony's annual international student photography contest. Jordan's work is on display at Mayer Hall on the Marylhurst University campus.

Jordan has a message to convey – a message expressed in the photographic image which brought him great recognition through the Sony competition. As nice an honor as that is, however, it's not as important to VanSise as the message he is trying to convey through the series of images he has since created and submitted for the final contest in London.

The photos show a young veteran who has returned from war. In the shot which made him a finalist (at left), he shows three versions of himself, seated side by side on a sofa. On the left, he is in jeans, t-shirt, a knit cap and sneakers, engrossed in his iPhone. On the right, he is in a t-shirt, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and flip-flops – on hand up to his face, looking at the camera, smiling, ready for the beach. And in the middle of those two selves, he sits in his fatigues and combat boots, head bowed, one hand to his forehead, outstretched arm holding his rifle. In the middle of those two selves, he is inexpressibly sad.

That's the first impression, but there is something ominous going on in the photo, too. In the background, behind his three seated selves, there is a staircase. To the left, he stands,again in fatigues, again with his rifle - held casually this time - and half turned toward the figures on the couch. We don't see his face. Seated on the staircase near him, looking out through the railings, is some kind of menacing, demon-like figure – a dead-white face, deep black eyes, black hair, half human and half not human at all. The standing VanSise seems to be watching over the seated figures -- all these versions of himself -- knowing the demon is there.The real-life VanSise, sitting across a lunch table for an interview, has warm brown eyes that twinkle, a ready laugh, and an ability to tell a story in an engaging, articulate way. There's no hint of a veteran trying to find his way back. He's not a heavy-built, macho, football-type of Marine; to the contrary, VanSise is tall, with short-cropped dark hair, slender and still boyish-looking at the age of 25. His easy manner seems to belie the struggles he has faced. And in some ways, he says, his struggles haven't fit the stereotype that people think of when thinking of things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression or anxiety. When VanSise came home from Iraq in 2009, he wasn't irrationally angry and full of outbursts the way many veterans have been portrayed, but he did have triggers that would cause him to react in angry ways, or that would make him feel stressed. It took him a while to figure out that he should get help to work through some things – things he didn't recognize as problems for a long time. Once he realized, he signed up for therapy. He is grateful that his therapy comes free through the Returning Veterans Project in Portland, and feels badly for his friends in other areas of the country who don't have the same opportunities.

"All our training was in the field, and with the weapons, learning to shoot. All combat-related. They teach you to hate; they teach you to be really, really angry – you have to be in order to survive. You can't think of the enemy as human – you wouldn't be able to kill him." VanSise says. He is thankful he never had to kill anyone – he has friends who did, and says it affected them greatly. In war, he says, "You act with anger, with hatred, then you come back here and you can't be that person any more. You have to put that aside, and be nice." But it isn't so easy to simply discard what has become internalized as part of a person, or to erase images, memories and sounds. There's no un-ringing that bell. Veterans can only hope to travel beyond that time.The military furnishes its recruits with a strong structure, strong set of rules, and instructions for how to handle every minute of the day – how to dress, where to go, what to eat, what to do. One result is that the airman, soldiers, sailors and marines in the armed services learn how to bury any individual initiative and to simply follow orders. They learn to rely on that severe structure; they count on it for survival. Sometimes, when they become civilians again and re-enter society, they don't do well because they have forgotten how to create the life they'd really like; they have been wedded to structure, even though they may now chafe against it; and when they look for instructions and directions on how to proceed, there are none.

The first thing one notices in seeing VanSise's new series of photographs is that he has broken out of the structure and created a different world, one in which his self-expression has become a healing thing. In the series of photographs submitted for the final part of the competition, the demon is always there: in one, he is seated on a chair in a field bound by a chain-link fence with razor wire on top; VanSise, in his fatigues, is standing a few feet away looking outside the fence, obviously wanting to get out. In another image, VanSise and the demon are playing chess, and the mood is intense for VanSise, who leans forward over the chessboard. The demon, on the other hand, sits back, more relaxed. In another print, VanSise and the demon are lying in pieces on the ground, with rubble and bits of garbage strewn around them – and the living VanSise stands there watching, trying to decide how to pick up the pieces.

There are several more. The photographs are powerful, a representation of both the internal and external life of a returning veteran. They are images which any veteran who has ever been deployed will instantly understand - and that is the message VanSise wants to get out. To the veterans, he says, "There is a road back; there is a path, and there is help, but you have to work through things instead of trying to numb the pain." To the rest of society, he says "Realize what war does to the young people you send to fight the battles. And realize what war does to the children living in the war zones. Look at the full reality of this."The full reality he saw in Iraq still bothers him. Part of his platoon's mission in Iraq was to help guard an elementary school, to protect the children; he hates it that children have to live like that. He hates it that people have to live in bombed-out buildings, with little shelter or food. He hates it that not understanding hand gestures in another culture led to innocent deaths. When an American military guard holds up his hand, palming facing outward, we all understand that as a signal to "Halt." Come no further. To the Iraqis, the same signal means "Come ahead." Come forward. Whole families sometimes came forward to their deaths, not understanding.

The whole reality follows veterans home, too. Mixed in with the pieces of his life that he needs to put back together is the fact that a close friend killed two other people before committing suicide himself – another casualty of war, just not on the battlefield.

"Realize the damages of war," he says. "And think about the children." VanSise wants to finish his BFA degree from Marylhurst, then build a career where he can help veterans. In addition, he fully believes that the skills veterans have learned about turning away from war and reclaiming themselves can be of immense help to parents who feel upset and exasperated by small children, to people acting out their pain by being bullies, or to anyone feeling upset and angry at circumstances in today's world. Since returning home, he finds that he reacts strongly to people disrespecting each other in public. He wants to help change damaging disrespect.

One of the last images in his series shows the demon's head on a stack of pillows, near a window; a knife lies nearby. There is no blood or gore in the scene; the demon is just now separated from him. VanSise himself stands next to the pillows and the knife, turned away from the camera, his head bowed down, his shoulders slumped. He is not in his fatigues. "That's not meant to portray how I am now," he notes. "It's to say this is part of the journey."

"I feel like I have something to say," he adds.  "And I'm just getting started."

Jordan VanSise's faculty advisor, professor Rich Rollins, will accompany him to London for the final competition. Rollins teaches photography in the Department of Art & Interior Design at Marylhurst University.

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