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The Living Legacy of WWI: Hidden Photographic Narratives, with Katherine Akey

April 3, 2018

French military hospital during World War I. CREDIT: Yelkrokoyade/Public Domain

REED BONADONNA: This is Reed Bonadonna. I'm a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and I'm talking from their building on Lexington and 64th Street in Manhattan. Today's date is the 25th of January, 2018. It's a little past 10:00 in the morning for us.

I am talking to Katherine Akey. Katherine, I'm not sure where you're talking from right now. What kind of affiliation do you have at this moment, too, because I remember we communicated a bit about being a non-affiliated scholar and whether you have any job title or any other means of introduction you would care to put out there?

KATHERINE AKEY: Yes, absolutely. I am actually based in Washington, DC, at the moment. I lived in Manhattan for 10 years, so definitely a bit of a New Yorker at heart still. I am an independent artist. I also am a photo department chair at a local non-profit arts organization.

I work for the World War I Centennial Commission. I help them with their social media, and I'm a podcast producer. We produce a podcast every week. I also curate for the public park system here in DC, and I think that's it for job titles at the moment. I have a lot going on.

REED BONADONNA: Great. Still a work in progress, I'm sure, but that's a lot.

I have some questions, some general, some related specifically to your topic, and some things in your proposal that I wanted to get into a little bit more. Maybe to start off with, how did you get involved in this project, which involved making the acquaintance of Roy Bard Sheetz, his historical record at least, and maybe talk a little more about him, about how he came to work at the jaw ward at the American Red Cross Hospital in the First World War, what was his training, what he did after, anything else you care to say about how you were introduced to Sheetz, to the topic in general, and a little more about him.

KATHERINE AKEY: Yes. Roy Sheetz is still a bit of a mystery to me. I ran into him because I had been attracted to these pictures of what I will call the "gueules cassées," men with maxillofacial injuries in World War I, for a long time as an artist. I first encountered them maybe six or seven years ago just doing preliminary reading and research about the war. They are very striking. They are very difficult pictures, and they really stick with you. I also found them really lovely.

So when we moved to DC, my husband and I, about a year and a half ago—DC has so many amazing archives and institutions, and I started poking around to see who in the area had images like this. The National Institutes of Health's (NIH) medical history library had some, and I had it in the back of my mind and forgot about it for awhile, and then this fellowship was presented to me as an opportunity, and I said, "Okay, what is actionable for me to research, and what do I really want to talk about?" Of course, these images came to mind. Because I live in the area it is easy for me to go and work with the images in person.

I talked to the NIH, and they were really excited that I was interested in this collection because it had been donated a couple of years ago by Roy Sheetz's granddaughter, and no one had been able to look at it or research it or take any time for it yet. So they were excited that I wanted to spend some time with it.

His granddaughter is still alive, and she is actually a historian. We have spoken on the phone, and she is supportive and excited that I want to participate and has gotten all of her cousins involved, and they are sending me other stuff that is not in the collection and this sort of thing, so it has turned into a bit of a family affair, which is such a blessing. We do not have a lot of people who are even grandchildren or children of World War I veterans who are still very aware of their family's service.

We know some about Roy Sheetz. I know he is from Pennsylvania. I know when he was drafted. But how exactly he ended up on a jaw ward rather than in a frontline position is a little mysterious still. I believe it has to do with him being a Mennonite. There is a lot of evidence that he was a Mennonite.

His granddaughter is a little unsure about his religious affiliation in his 20s, but if he was a Mennonite, they generally speaking were conscientious objectors, and if he did conscientiously object, he would have been given the opportunity to be reassigned somewhere in a noncombatant role, which is how he could have ended up in the jaw ward. I know he did go through officer training and a few other things like that, but piecing together all the steps that got him from Pennsylvania to Neuilly-sur-Seine is definitely something that I am working on, and it is definitely not helped by the fact that the National Archives in St. Louis suffered a really devastating fire a few years ago, and they lost something like 75 to 80 percent of their records from World War I soldiers. So that has been a bit of a wall to overcome.

REED BONADONNA: How is your research going? You mentioned a number of places where you will be doing research. I was wondering if there have been any interesting discoveries as you have rolled into that. I'm not sure how far along you are into the research which you have planned to do for this project.

KATHERINE AKEY: The biggest problem with a project, especially about World War I because it is such a massive topic, mission creep is so real, especially at the beginning of a project. I have started just focusing on Sheetz and on the hospital where he served, which goes by a lot of names, and that for me in the first couple of weeks was super-confusing. The American Red Cross Hospital Number One, the American Field Service, the American Ambulance, the American Hospital in Paris, those are all the same thing. It took me a little while to figure out that they are all the same institution.

I have been doing a lot of research into the American Hospital in Paris, which was not affiliated with the army at all when it was first created in 1912. I think the construction was done in 1913. It was built with private funds from affluent Americans who were expatriated to Paris who wanted an American medical institution. The Morgans, the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, all these big-name families put millions of dollars to build a very high-tech, cutting-edge hospital in Paris.

They finished building it in 1913, and lo and behold, war breaks out. Being expatriated to France and having this strong affiliation for Franco-American ties, they immediately want to help the French war effort, and out of that they take over a nearby high school, the Lycée Pasteur, that was just about finished being constructed, and that is what turns into the American Red Cross Hospital Number One. That building, that is the jaw ward where Sheetz was serving.

They create the first ambulance service that turns into the American Field Service there. A lot of really important medical breakthroughs happen there during the war. They are very close to the Val-de-Grâce, so a lot of this maxillofacial surgery was happening between those two hospitals.

So unwittingly because of Sheetz I have landed in this really interesting bit of medical and military history for the war. He served in a really interesting facility that had a lot of names and a lot of different roles over the course of the war.

REED BONADONNA: For an English major like me, I think of some of the literary connections with World War I and World War I medicine. Hemingway drove an ambulance; E. E. Cummings drove an ambulance. They both wrote about that. I think of some of the World War I poets, maybe most especially Wilfred Owen because he wrote quite a bit about men who had been wounded, not specifically facial wounds. Have you read any of that literature as background to get a sense, a little bit of the soul of what the experience was like to be wounded, to care for wounded?

KATHERINE AKEY: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Speaking of E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway, this hospital is really where the American Volunteer Ambulance Service starts, so a lot of familiar names pass through as you start reading about it. I think something like over half of the pilots that ended up in the Lafayette Escadrille started as ambulance drivers in that hospital, so it is this real gateway that all of these famous American volunteers passed through.

So yes, I have done some of this reading as you mentioned of people who had been there. Of course, E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room was actually a favorite of mine in high school, and it was not for another few years that I started becoming more interested in World War I and realized that I was looping back to things I had already liked as a child.

Actually, one of the most profound books I have read about this part of the conflict, being a patient, being inside of a hospital, was Gabriel Chevallier's book Fear. He is French, and it just recently got translated into English in the last few years, I think. It is a novelization of his actual experience in the war.

There is a scene where he has been wounded by a grenade, and he is in a hospital, and there is a man on the ward with him who has lost both of his hands. He talks about how the man cannot pray, and that seems like the most horrible thing that could have happened to him. I found that really a profound observation, that we are not just talking about people having physical assets taken from them, but when it comes to losing limbs and losing parts of your face, we are also talking about really deeply spiritual, emotional, and psychological wounds.

REED BONADONNA: That inevitably makes me think of the wounded veteran in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives who lost both his hands, played by an actor who was a veteran and who had actually lost both his hands.

I was struck by your phrase, the pictures, which I sort of look forward to and also dread seeing as I am sure I inevitably will see some of them when your project is submitted. You talk about "the vulnerability, pain, and odd peacefulness" on display in them.

I have some of my own thoughts about that impression you get from the pictures. Here are these men who have been grievously wounded. You can understand the vulnerability and the pain a little more readily, but whence this odd peacefulness that you see in the pictures?

KATHERINE AKEY: Part of that is that they are posing for a picture. Most likely it is a pretty formal large camera that requires them to sit very still so there are some logistical reasons why they appear that way I think, although I have not yet confirmed exactly who is taking these pictures and with what, but that is my gut.

There is a lot of interesting writing. The Imperial War Museum put out an amazing book maybe almost 10 years ago called Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality, and Transformation that is about this very topic, what happens to bodies that have been damaged, what happens to the dead after a war is over, and sort of cycling that around World War I. There is a really good essay in it about masculinity and the expression of pain during World War I, and there is a lot of complexity to it about is it seen as braver not to express your pain. There is a lot of, especially in the British Army, observations by medics and stretcher bearers that they are very proud of how quiet everyone is as they are suffering these horrible injuries.

At the same time, when you read patients' journals, all they write about is the pain and managing it and the wounds they see of other male bodies around them, so there is a lot of conflict there I think, and I think that is very obvious in the pictures. In these wards they would get rid of all reflective surfaces so that they could not see themselves with their facial wounds because it just drove them insane if they did. They tried to keep them from touching their own faces.

I am looking forward to having people see the pictures. I understand the urge not to look. I myself have been made sick by them more than once so far, and I look forward to more of that in the future.

There is a very talented contemporary war photographer, Christoph Bangert, who shoots a lot for The New York Times, and he put out a wonderful artist's book a few years ago called War Porn, which was an attempt by him to not self-censor because he claims that self-censorship can be dangerous. In his intro he says in all caps: "I understand when people don't want to look at my pictures, and I say 'I understand,' but I'm being polite. Really I just say you have to look at it." I think I kind of agree with him.

REED BONADONNA: Very interesting. You have already alluded to some of this, but you mentioned a couple of specific works of art theory—Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson. How do you think some of that art theory reading that you have done has been able to shed light on your project, on its import?

KATHERINE AKEY: I don't know if it has shed light or if it has muddied water at this point. It feels like the more I re-read these writings, the more issues I get.

REED BONADONNA: Like a lot of theory, right? What does it mean?

KATHERINE AKEY: Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others is kind of my lodestar. I go back to it all the time, making work about conflict. But she contradicts herself because it is contradictory, and I think that is important for us to be conflicted about it.

There is pleasure in being able to look at these pictures and not flinch, and there is satisfaction in flinching. That is inherently true. There are always going to be arguments that these kinds of images are purely for shock value, or if we look at them too much, we won't be shocked anymore. There is always conflict to it.

When I did my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) I actually went to the International Center of Photography, which is a museum, and it is Robert Capa's museum. It was created out of his archive when he got killed. Though it was an MFA and we were very focused on practice and this sort of thing, we always had this shadow of photojournalism over us, and we talked about this a lot in grad school.

I do not think there is a real answer to it, but I think it is profoundly important to talk about, especially in a day and age where we are inundated with images. Being able to think critically about them, to think critically about who took them, who is looking at them, in what context, I think that is really important.

Honestly, World War I is one of the first wars that was pretty well-photographed. That is only a hundred years ago. So what is going to happen a hundred years from now, when we have millions of images of atrocities to deal with? I think now is a good time to keep chipping at that block.

REED BONADONNA: Yes. A lot of the images being taken now I think are kind of ephemeral. They are not as well-kept or preserved as some of the old photographs anyway.

You also quote from Susan Sontag. She talks about collective memory as an identification of what is important. I have to mention that just yesterday I read a quotation from Susan Sontag which I clipped. She is talking about ethics and ethics as "the art of being a moral person is deciding what's important," so she is making the same point about memory and ethics.

That is sort of my segue into, since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, getting through the theory and the images themselves, the fact of the wounded body. Another work might be Elaine Scarry's Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, if you want to take on more theory.

But ethical implications of your work: What questions of ethics are raised by this? Maybe we can start to talk about the contemporary relevance of your project as well.

KATHERINE AKEY: For me it has a lot more to do with photography and what we do with photography moving forward or images—"image-making" is probably a more correct term. I am not sure yet. I know something is there, but I am not sure I can articulate it yet. I think that is great. My mother is a professor and an academic, and she said, "Well, Katherine if you already know what you're looking for, you probably aren't looking for anything all that special this early in the project."

I teach photography, and I teach kids as young as kindergarten. Admittedly, we are in DC where they are all much more aware of politics than I am assuming other kindergartners are because their parents work in the government or are lawyers and journalists and that sort of thing. But the amount to which these same questions affect them every day, again going back to this idea of how many images they are seeing all the time and how little they are able to discern what is being done with them and how they are manipulating them or how they are attempting to coerce them and this sort of thing I think is really important.

I also think World War I is timed just right for so many big cultural shifts, and that includes photography. It is at the very cusp of the democratization of photography, that is, everyone being able to take a picture, easy access to cameras, easily shot cameras, cheaper films, portable cameras, this sort of thing. So at the same time you are seeing medical photos like this that are very formal and you are seeing sanctioned war photography that is very formal, you are starting to see private collections of photographs, which Sheetz has. He has images that he took himself while he was at hospital, including really charming group photos of everyone in the jaw ward all bandaged up with weird metal headgear holding their faces together, smiling, which are in complete contrast to these very isolated, stoic medical photos.

So I wonder what do we do with these. What burden do we in the present have on preserving and understanding—I don't know. I don't know if that is getting toward anything.

I think because they continue to exist and because not only did his granddaughter think they were important enough to give to a public institution, but she thought they were important enough to keep, begs the question of why. He kept these pictures, not just the ones he took, but these portraits, these very close-up brutal portraits of these men undergoing treatment, not just in his house in an attic somewhere, but in his room apparently, in his closet. He kept them. He must have kept them for something, and I do not know what and why yet, but I think that will point a little bit toward what we can do with them now or what we ought to be doing with them now.

REED BONADONNA: Has the project made you think at all about contemporary soldiers or others who have been facially disfigured in war or by an accident? Most of the facially disfigured soldiers and Marines who I have read about and seen pictures of lately seem to be burn victims. That seems to be more common because people are riding in vehicles that contain fuel and things like that, and the face is one of the few parts of the body that is left unprotected by a lot of the protective gear that is being worn nowadays. Have you thought at all about the relevance of your project specifically to soldiers and others a hundred years on who are suffering from facially disfiguring wounds?

KATHERINE AKEY: Yes, absolutely. I have thought about it. I'm unsure how to connect it back in some way.

I actually very recently found a group in France that connects all of this really perfectly. They are called the Union des Blessés de la Face et de la Tête. They were started by three World War I veterans with facial injuries in the 1920s as a support group, and they raise a lot of money. They are actually one of the largest investors in the French national lottery to raise money to put toward medical treatment and research and support of people with these kinds of injuries.

They still exist. They have the most wonderful motto. Their motto is sourire quand méme, which means "Smile anyway," which I think is lovely. They have this really direct connection for me between World War I and all of these gueules cassées from that era and people today who are going through this. That has been a little interesting for me, to look at the work they are doing, the way they talk about things.

I do think speaking to soldiers now would be beneficial to me. I think I am just anxious. I'm a little nervous to do it because I don't want to upset anybody, and it already feels like I'm in someone's private space that I really should not be in sometimes when I am working with these images because it is so brutal.

So I would really like to, but I'm a little nervous. I feel like I will build up to it.

REED BONADONNA: Yes, of course. There has to be writing about them, too, that you could start with, writing by themselves or by others about their conditions, about their reaction.

I am not sure if you are aware, but Henry V of Agincourt fame, the English king, usually his portraits are in profile, and this may be because—there is a famous portrait of him which is in profile—he was wounded in the face with an arrow when he was a younger solder before Agincourt. I think he was fighting in Wales. His personal surgeon had to contrive a system of pliers and screws to remove this crossbow bolt from his face, if you can imagine. No painkiller, and I am sure it made kind of a mess out of that side of his face, so that is why he probably got his portraits in profile afterward.

One of the historians who we have talked with here at the Carnegie Council says that if you want to have a sensory picture of the American Revolution, think of the smell of whiskey and onions. He thinks those two smells were probably very dominant in camp and in the line for the American army. I wonder if there are any dominant sense impressions that you are taking away from your research, either the research itself or what was the sensory experience like of working or being a patient at American Red Cross Hospital Number One or a similar institution, anything like that, the touch, the feel, the smell of the work you are doing.

KATHERINE AKEY: Yes. I think you are probably one of the luckiest of the wounded soldiers if you end up at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine because it is bright, it is full of windows. There is a beautiful garden out back. There are a ton of nurses there, and some of the best doctors from the United States are there, people who are leading the cutting edge in antiseptics, in painless anesthesias, stuff like that. They are there.

Uniquely, and one of the reasons why the jaw ward was there, the American Hospital had a dental ward in it, which was very unusual in France at the time, but the Americans wanted one, so you had dental surgeons in the hospital. It sounds like a wonderful place to end up if you are in that bad of a condition. My impression of it is that it is sunny and the rooms are large. From descriptions I have read of other field ambulances, it would be hard to be beat.

And when you are well enough, you get to go out, and you're in Paris, compared to the trenches, which to me are lice and unrequiting noise. It would be a good place to end up if you were wounded. Obviously not a good place to end up if you had your druthers, but of the hospitals it sounds not bad at all.

REED BONADONNA: Certainly an improvement over your previous circumstances.

We sort of verged on this, and I think you are still a little bit tentative about it, but since this is a project on the World War I legacy for Americans in particular, I will ask: What should we, Americans, remember most about the aspect of the World War I experience that is your work at this time? I know that answer will probably have to be tentative. It is still early days, but it might be interesting to hear you express yourself on that subject now and then again six months from now when we are at the end.

KATHERINE AKEY: Honestly, the thing that surprises me most, and sometimes does not surprise me at all, I guess, is that Americans do not really know this war happened in the sense that, "Oh, yeah, it's in the textbook, I know it happened, and great." But they don't know what it was, and a lot of that has to do with we got in late and we did not send that many men over compared to the European forces, and we did not have that many killed and wounded compared to the European forces or compared to other wars we were in, and we are physically very removed from the evidence of it, unlike the Belgians and the French who live on top of battlefields still.

I think images like this, the fact that a 25-year-old from Pennsylvania came back with these images, it lingers here. Just because we don't remember the details of it does not mean that it has not profoundly affected the psychology of individuals and therefore culture on a large scale. You still had millions of men and women who went over there and were subjected to this in life, not through images.

So I think just remembering is a massive goal for me. As soon as you have read a few letters home or a few journals, or as soon as I pulled—I have a few stories in my back pocket that I use as anecdotes for friends who are skeptical that it is that interesting or that bad of a war. You pull one of those out, and suddenly people are like, "Oh, my gosh, I had no idea how"—I keep using this word "brutal," but I don't have a better word for it besides brutality—"brutal it was and that it really did affect people here."

REED BONADONNA: Looking at your proposal, I don't know that you ever assigned your project a working title. Have you thought of one at this point? Do you have a title for your work, tentatively called X?

KATHERINE AKEY: I don't know if I do. I feel like every couple of days it is shifting a little bit, where sometimes it is more about the men, sometimes it is more about the images, sometimes it is more about contemporary photography, so at the moment, no. It still feels very in flux.

REED BONADONNA: This has been very interesting to me. Joel Rosenthal, the president of the Council, and I both had ancestors who were soldiers in the First World War. My ancestor was a Marine. We have pictures and a certain amount of institutional family memory of their service, but we are certainly learning a lot more about this conflict through this project.

Anything you would like to say maybe to wrap things up? What questions should I have asked and didn't? How would you like the legacy of this interview to be remembered?

KATHERINE AKEY: I think you have asked a lot of really good questions, and I have gotten to mention a lot of the things I had wanted to mention. Nothing is coming to mind at the moment.

REED BONADONNA: Maybe that will do it then.

Katherine, it has been great talking to you. I am sure with the project going forward we will probably get a chance to meet in person, here in New York maybe or maybe down there in Washington. We are not exactly sure what kind of a conference or party we are going to put on to wrap up the project.

I will say have a great day, and good luck with everything on the project. Of course, I will just mention I am still here in support as a senior fellow. Questions or difficulties, shoulder to cry on, I am not going anywhere.

KATHERINE AKEY: Thank you. I appreciate that.

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