In her book, Wars I Have Seen, Gertrude Stein writes about the experience of the home front while living in France during World War II. Writing about her earlier years she notes, “During these years there was no war and if there was it was not any war of mine.”
We are fast approaching the 10-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. For the majority of this decade we have been at war. These are our wars. The news of these wars has vanished from the front-page headlines eclipsed by pressing issues on the home front. For most of us the wars did not dramatically impact our lives. This series looks at life on the home front but references the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have yet to fully realize the impact of soldiers returning home from a combat zone as they attempt to reintegrate back into society. We will no longer be able to keep the clean separation between home front and war front.
Stein continues, “Of course there are a good many times when there is no war just as there are a good many times when there is a war. And when there is no war, well just now I cannot remember just how it is when there is no war.”
Keep Your Chin Up
My mother has been a frequent subject of mine throughout the years. I was with her for the last weeks of her life and when she took her last breath. As she lay dying, in a morphine-laced state, she called out for her mother. She had one foot in this world and one foot in the next. I asked her questions about her experience. She recalled waiting to board a boat but they wouldn’t let her board. She was turned away. Why did they turn you away I asked? My children, she replied.
My mother was a force growing up. She was the glue that held the family together. She was strong, a fighter she liked to say. But this disease knocked her out. It was hard to watch her lose her strength, her body weight and ultimately her will.
In the months that followed, I cleared out her home and sifted through the remnants of her life. Her papers and belongings were sorted, donated, or tossed. What remained was the empty apartment, a shell of all the life and events that had transpired within its walls. A home is more than a shelter or a roof over our heads. It is the culmination of all the life lived within.
I replayed voice messages that remained on my phone. She always ended every conversation with the catch phrase “Keep your chin up.” It didn’t matter whether I needed cheering up or encouragement or if everything was going well. My brother and I joked about it and wondered about her curious turn of phrase. But hearing that expression after she passed, those words took on new meaning.
This selection of images is a subset of a larger body of work including additional portraits, family photos, handwritten recipes, notes, medical records and birthday cards.
“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this “something” cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory. The census doesn’t count it. Nothing counts without it.” ? Robert Fulghum
Cynthia Bittenfield pursues projects that shed light on the human cost of war whether dealing with the issue of post-traumatic stress, revisiting battlefields and sites of atrocity, or documenting life on the home front. The discovery of her father’s wartime scrapbook after he died started her in this new direction. The photo album and family archive has also figured prominently in her latest portrait project, an homage to her mother’s life and death.
She has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Recently, her work was featured in The Distance Between You and Me, Freies Museum, Berlin, Germany, War and Peace, Darkroom Gallery, Essex Junction, VT. She assisted Krzysztof Wodiczko on his Veteran's Flame Project, which was a part of Creative Time’s Plot 9, on Governor's Island, NY and presented at the 23rd Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, Visions of War: the arts represent conflict, at the School of Visual Arts, NY. Bittenfield has attended residencies at the Kala Arts Center in Berkeley, the Vermont Studio Center, Picture Berlin, and the Wassaic Project in New York. She was awarded a grant from the Puffin Foundation and the School of Visual Arts, New York, where she received her MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media. Her website is: www.cynthiabittenfield.com. She lives and works in New York City and is currently on the board of Baxter St/Camera Club of New York.
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