Jo Metson Scott: The Grey Line

Published this month by Dewi Lewis to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, London-based portrait and documentary photographer Jo Metson Scott’s new book The Grey Line, is a deeply reflective examination of war, as told from the personal perspectives of US and UK soldiers who have spoken out against the Iraq War.

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Metson Scott began the project in 2007, after meeting nineteen year old US soldier Robert, who had gone AWOL from his regiment, after being denied conscientious objector status in order to avoid redeployment to Iraq. A term most familiar from its use in times of conscription, especially during the First and Second World Wars; since 2003, just over 400 American service men have applied for conscientious objector status, with only 179 requests being granted. In this same time period, approximately 20,000 soldiers have gone AWOL.

Robert’s sister had informed the FBI of his whereabouts when he first went into hiding, but he wasn’t caught. He turned himself in after being in hiding for a month, as he needed to be AWOL for a certain amount of time to be considered ‘a deserter’. He was subsequently imprisoned for seven months. Metson Scott’s encounter with Robert inspired her to spend the next five years traveling widely across the US, finding and documenting men and women who had each in very individual ways, come to question their own actions, and speak out about the morality of the Iraq war, to very differing consequences. Such consequences ranged from imprisonment, honourable discharge, to the deterioration of family relationships.

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In the course of her research, Metson Scott met 45 soldiers, and The Grey Line examines the personal stories of 29 of these individuals, (not all of them were conscientious objectors). The experience of Josh Steiber is just one example of the personal testimonies Metson Scott documents in her book. Steiber enlisted in the United States Army aged 18 as an infantryman. He was deployed to Iraq in 2007 for fourteen months, as part of a unit patrolling the industrial part of Baghdad, south of the city. During a patrol, a bomb went off, and unable to see due to the dust from the blast, Steiber refused his sergeant’s orders to open fire, as the last thing he had seen was a group of children running around. He explains:

“I tried arguing with people that it was morally wrong. My sergeant went nuts. He was really pissed at me. A couple of times I would fire and intentionally aim at the ground, just to not cause any problems with the leadership. It was so contradictory to everything that I believed in to shoot randomly at civilians. I also figured that if I violated my conscience that much, and did something I was so opposed to, then even if I did survive I don’t think I could have lived with the guilt. I was really torn between wanting to do the right thing but it was also my duty to follow orders. I’d gotten into trouble for refusing to fire my weapon, so they’d kept me back from a mission and that was the mission that ended up being the one in the WikiLeaks video….

[The WikiLeaks video Steiber refers to was released in 2010. It shows footage recorded from an Apache helicopter on 12 July 2007, which carried out an airstrike which killed civilians including 22-year-old Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh.]

The public reaction to the video was shock, but people focused on the actions of the soldiers in the helicopter and while that’s important, overall I think it points to a much bigger issue… of the military’s’ mentality of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. Even the Secretary of Defence watched the video and said there was no wrongdoing in it. In my opinion that’s because they found a strategic justification for these actions. I think the video shows why the war dragged on as long as it did; you place soldiers in the middle of civilian territory and it’s inevitable that locals will be harmed and new enemies created in people who were not enemies before. But if these things are militarily justified then we have to ask: can they be morally justified?”

After completing his tour in Iraq, Steiber applied for conscientious objector status. His application was approved after ten months, and he was honourably discharged.
He is now studying psychology at university and working at the psychology department of a hospital.

Only one British veteran, Ben Griffin, participated in Metson Scott’s project. Griffin served with the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan, before going to Iraq as a member of the Special Air Service. In March 2005, he refused to return to Iraq after a period of leave, believing the war to be morally wrong. Griffin was released from the army with an exemplary record. After openly criticising the war in public, he was given a High Court injunction in 2008 to prevent him discussing further his experiences in service. However Griffin continues to campaign to increase public awareness of the costs of war, and in 2011 founded the UK arm of Veterans for Peace. Metson Scott recently discussed The Grey Line with Griffin at a special event at The Frontline Club, now available online.

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The title of Metson Scott’s portraiture series effectively conveys the impossibly difficult moral negotiations undertaken by each sitter, faced and debated within the context of a military environment they had initially chosen, and in a role they were contractually obliged to fulfill. The layout of her book is sketchbook in style, with fragments of domestic interiors, letters and interview transcripts adding further depth and meaning to her subtle but commanding photographic portraits. The muted colour palette of the portraits also helps illustrate the intangible nature of the emotional, mental and moral journey of each sitter. Metson Scott’s photographic style is one that serves her subjects with minimal intervention, and the resulting body of work is a powerful and lasting legacy to a group of men and women whose bravery and personal testimonies would otherwise remain largely hidden from a wider world audience.

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All images © Jo Metson Scott, reproduced with kind permission.

One thought on “Jo Metson Scott: The Grey Line

  1. Clearly, this is deeply moving material. The format (from the examples shown) makes what would otherwise be a grave topic accessible by introducing it to the viewer in a humble and familiar structure.
    Enjoyed this little peek at the work!

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