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Storytellers: Leesha Quigg - Operation Duality

By Amy Touchette


PHOTO © LEESHA QUIGG
LIFE IN THE BALANCE: A small child’s brightly colored dress is countered by the formidable presence of an American soldier in Quigg’s image from an Iraqi school yard. “Taking photos of the people and places around me allowed me to reflect on the impact we were making as U. S. soldiers in a different culture,” she says.


What if getting down to business were a matter of letting up on your objectives for a moment instead of bearing down on them? There are two sides to many things—a story, a coin, weighing scales, popular opinion. . . . What if the path to really making things happen also has two sides, requiring equal measures of determination and acquiescence?

Choosing between the dualities that surround us and holding firm to just one rather than embracing life’s spectrum could be the very act that keeps us from finding the fullest expression of our goals. Leesha Quigg’s series Photographs from Iraq suggests this notion in the seemingly divergent subjects she photographs—soldiers and children.

Currently a student at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Pennsylvania, Quigg served in the U. S. Army as a civil affairs specialist in the Iraqi province of Diwaniyah from May 2009 to March 2010. During this tour of duty, she photographed the many missions performed by her small team. What she recorded was not the heart-wrenching violence and tragedy we’re accustomed to seeing from conflict photographers, but the wide-eyed, sociable children of Iraq attempting to live normal lives in an abnormal setting.

A civil affairs specialist must be a “jack of all trades,” explains Quigg. “We have different missions at different stages of war and peacetime. While I was in Iraq, I worked with a team of Army, Navy, Air Force, and State Department officials. Together we engulfed ourselves in the province of Diwaniyah and worked on improving the Iraqis’ lives through their schools, agriculture, public health and politics.”

When she was not in a primary role on a mission—often working as a gunner for her team—she would photograph the people and places around her with one of the two cameras she carried at all times. Her tender portraits of Iraqi women and children are lightly interspersed with images of a dramatically dissimilar presence—gun-clad soldiers in official camouflage and protective gear. While the children’s presence in Quigg’s photographs can be jarringly different from the soldiers’ (it is difficult to extract a soldier’s formidable and intimidating appearance from the armor of their uniform, even while they hand out candy), the presence of both subjects creates an important counterpoint.

Knowing something about the photographer and the conditions under which these images were created is partly what makes this work so compelling. The viewing experience is made special because we are clear about the gap this soldier has bridged from behind the lens. We understand both sides at once—the photographer’s and the subject’s, the soldier’s and the children’s—and as a result, we have the pleasure of taking in a body of work that feels complete, balanced, and therefore multidimensional—many things instead of just one.

Given Quigg’s personal assessment of her role in Iraq as a jack of all trades, it’s not surprising that what she got out of this photographic experience was also multidimensional in nature. From her perspective as a soldier, she notes, “taking photos of the people and places around me allowed me to reflect on the impact we were making as U. S. soldiers in a different culture.” As a photographer, she shares this insight: “If I hadn’t had the opportunity to connect with the Iraqi people in this special way, I may have been more focused on my job and less aware of the people it would affect.” Her role as a solider informed her role as a photographer, and vice versa.

“I’ve always thought photography was a great way to communicate without saying a word,” says Quigg. “In making these pictures, my inspiration came from the Iraqis themselves around me. I found it important to want to show some light and normalcy in the midst of war.”

When Quigg returned from her service and enrolled at MCCC, she showed her photographs to her English teacher, Amy Agnew, who was so compelled by them she e-mailed the school’s art department on Quigg’s behalf. Walter Plotnick, MCCC senior lecturer and fine arts coordinator, responded by curating Photographs from Iraq into a print-on-demand book (available from Blurb) and an exhibition at the college, the proceeds of which were donated to the college’s veterans scholarship fund. “Walter orchestrated everything, from getting my book together to having prints made to getting the college on board and having the show,” Quigg says.

Engaging the help of others upon her return to the United States was key to getting the work out there, not only because it allowed Quigg to make valuable use of the strengths and connections of others but also because she has a strong sense of priorities and knows that she can’t do it all. Quigg is both a soldier and a photographer as well as a full-time college student and the mother of a five-year-old daughter.

Living such a rich, multifaceted life has taught her how interdependent different roles can be and when to temporarily let go of one to take on another.

The importance of family is high on her list, so Quigg is currently focused on her daughter before she starts kindergarten in September. Quigg too will return to her studies in the fall, as well as to her photography, with images featured in the show Opposites Attract at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, on view from September 9 to October 13. She describes this exhibit as a war memorial of sorts, with her images showing the light amidst the destruction and sculptures by Joan Menapace honoring the fallen.

Looking ahead to March 2012, when her eight years of military service is up, Quigg is hoping to travel and photograph different cultures, affirming that in the process of juggling life’s varied aspects, and from the seeds of both determination and acquiescence, extraordinary stories grow.

TECH BOX

CAMERAS: Nikon D40, Nikon Coolpix S550

LENSES: AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II

AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED

 

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