Several years ago I attended our local Memorial Day ceremony in Gloucester, Massachusetts, because my daughter had been invited to sound taps on her trumpet. I noticed a man wearing his original World War II Eisenhower jacket, complete with service ribbons, and thought that I needed to make this guy’s portrait. It would be a year before I got my act together to start researching local veterans.
Gloucester has a long and proud connection with military service. A largely blue-collar fishing community, it sent 5,665 young men and women to serve over the course of the war. Of those, 119 never made it home.
The 70th anniversary of the end of the war was in 2015, and I realized that most remaining veterans would be in their late 80s and early 90s. Time was not on my side. I wanted to photograph as many veterans living on Cape Ann — a collection of five communities — as I could. I didn’t have a plan for what to do with their portraits. I just knew that we were losing these veterans every day.
I connected with local veterans agencies, organizations, senior centers and anyone I knew who might know someone who had served. It started slowly, and not every outreach was successful. Some folks didn’t want anything to do with the project, but eventually, word started getting around, and the list began to grow.
The request was simple: I would come to their home, set up a small seamless, make their portrait and ask them a few questions about their service, their lives and families. For that, I would give them a framed copy of the photograph for them or their family.
One comment kept recurring as I spoke with family members: “He probably won’t talk about the war very much ... he’s never said much about his time over there.” The reality was that once we sat down in their kitchens and living rooms, I often found it hard to get them to stop talking about their experiences.
As the first couple of dozen came together, it became clear to me that the pictures needed to be exhibited, so we started working on the logistics of printing, framing and, most important, finding a venue.
By the end of the summer of 2015, I had photographed 59 men and women and had put together an edit of 65 photographs. Gloucester’s mayor, Sefatia Romeo Theken, offered our beautiful City Hall as an exhibition space for a three-week show starting just before Veterans Day.
I launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to pay for the printing and framing of the exhibition and the gift prints for the veterans. With the help of friends and the community at large, I raised $12,000. I also applied to Awesome Gloucester, a local organization that gives out $1,000 microgrants for community projects.
The plan was an opening at City Hall, a couple of cheese plates and a sign-in book. We built temporary display panels out of Home Depot door panels. All we needed were the prints.
About 10 days before the show, in a dozen cardboard boxes, the 65 20x30 prints arrived. I couldn’t wait to open them.
The first print was flat and dull and just not great. Ugh. And the next and the next. Something clearly had gone wrong.
I was on the phone and emailing to my printer, back and forth, back and forth, until I was genuinely worried that there wouldn’t be enough time to get new prints. Finally, with a little desperation, I said to the gentleman I was working with, “I’ve got a show opening in less than a week. We’ve invited all the veterans and their families.” I paused. “These guys killed Nazis.” There was a moment of silence, and he responded, “Say no more. They’ll be there.” And they were.
Easily 300 people showed up for the opening. It was overwhelmingly touching to watch these men and women show their portraits to their grand- and great-grandchildren. Old friends who hadn’t seen one another in years met up again.
The best part of it was seeing the looks on their faces as they viewed their portraits. Most of the time, I never hear back from the people I photograph, so it was a bit nerve-wracking to be present as they saw their portraits for the first time.
The show lasted three weeks, and afterward, it soon found its new home: the center of my already crowded office. A 6-foot stack of framed prints, gathering dust.
They had a revival show at the Cape Ann Museum in 2018, but I knew that after that, they’d likely never be shown as a group again. They needed a home.
I decided that since these were people from my community and the project was so well-received and supported, the only real solution was to donate them back to the community with the hope that they will find some publicly accessible wall space in the various town and city buildings. Since the 2015 exhibit, over two-thirds of these people have died. As the members of the Greatest Generation, they will have some presence in our community’s memory through their portraits hanging in remembrance. ■
Jason Grow is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in the Boston area. He’s a former staff
photographer for The Mercury News in San Jose, California. He can be reached at jasongrow.com and [email protected].
A gallery of the exhibition can be viewed here. His website is jasongrow.com.