The Art of Loss in Jason Hanasik’s ‘He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore’

by Tammy Rae Carland

“We are first of all, as friends, the friends of solitude, and we are calling on you to share what cannot be shared.”

-Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship

The young men in Jason Hanasik’s photographs are hiding in plain sight; they are embedded in the landscape, camouflaged, leaning in and out of frames, coming and going in a state of bewildered betweeness. They seem present and absent at the same time. The images are a combination of landscapes and portraits taken by Hanasik of two brothers, Steven and Patrick, who are on furlough from the military or in pre-deployment. The series also includes photographs taken by the soldiers while deployed in Iraq. The common dominator, the relationship that Hanasik shares with these men, is a deceased friend (soldier) who was killed in Iraq. The absent young man is Steven’s best friend Josh. Patrick is Steven’s older brother and Hanasik’s best friend, and Josh was also a childhood friend of Hanasik’s. The specter of Josh, who is not present, and Hanasik who is present but invisible behind the camera, leads to an emotional push and pull; a symbiotic portrayals of tenderness and urgency hold each individual image. In these photographs, like most photographs, what is not there is just as meaningful as what is there. In Iraq, at home, in uniform, out of uniform, looking, not looking, confronting, avoiding, they all feel the same; they are all engulfed in the same emotional current over and over again. The repetition is soothing if not sublime.

The title of the series, He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore, reveals a narrative of disclosure, secrecy, vulnerability and movement through time and location. The work is photographic story telling, a coming of age tale in which the reader has entered either mid-epic or post-ending, like a movie that starts backwards or a novel that starts in the middle. The work is sad, lonely, brooding, melancholic, sexy and emanates emotional stagnation; the photographs are replete with stuck feelings. If it is in fact true that the process of grief is the only way to get from the past to the future, that grief is the threshold in which all losses get attended to, then Hanasik has built the door.

Hanasik’s eye is empathic; it is not a politically critical eye that is summing up the one-dimensional cardboard cut out expectations of the male American Marine. He has managed to puncture the façade, imaging men that are struggling with a continued attachment to their chosen identity and purpose. They are in crisis, a crisis of faith, intention or selfhood that only the unwarranted death of someone too young can throw us into. They are experiencing a disillusionment and trauma that simply needs to be lived through in hopes of getting to the other side. Hanasik has labored over a nuanced investigation of inter personal relationships and has arrived at a complex and intimate psychic history of individuals and institutions. It is fairly understood that feelings accommodate memory, that how we think and feel about something creates a shape-shifting experience around how we process, remember and record it as a memory. Then the inverse must also be true, that memories accommodate feeling; the loop always closes with not a tactile truth but rather a set of triggers, emotions that are translucent envelopes for experience.

The confines of masculinity have always inspired complicated and confusing feelings and actions. Masculinity is the unmarked social norm that all gendered and sexual identities are positioned against and with, rendered almost invisible in its reduction, refinement and privileged position of non-otherness. It is also equally hyper-visible, claustrophobic, anxiety-ridden and burdened with conformity, its egocentric fragility barely scathed and deconstructed despite decades of gender scholarship. There are such profound expectations placed on us to deliver our emotions within a gendered social norm, and nothing could possibly be less flexible in terms of gender expression and individuation then the military identity. A brotherhood built on overblown expectations, a working class masculinity that promises escape and delivers conformity within a strident caste system. This is where it matters to me that Jason Hanasik has been friends with his subjects most of his life, that they share a working class military childhood. Where it matters to me that Hanasik is queer and that his subjects are not. It matters because I come to understand his subjects as a surrogate for his own coming of age narrative. I believe it would be an oversimplification for someone to consider this work simply as a queering of the military male stereotype. Hanasik’s portrayal of these young men at this particular juncture in their lives and careers is a vehicle for his own grief and self-empowerment; it is both a relating to and refusal of the outcome of these profound expectations and limitations of masculine identity.

He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore is what happens when we try to record the undocumented, the unuttered and disappeared. It is what is possible when we insist on a continuity and involvement with the personal relationships that have imprinted us, when we seek connection as opposed to disconnection with our past. It is also a body of work that lays bare the limitations of compassion and witness when we attempt to suture - even tenuously - a shared wound.   Diane Arbus so poetically stated, “A photograph is a secret about a secret”, and when you unpack this quote you arrive at a secret, not what lies behind and within the secret, the truth or story, but rather at the façade, the cover-up – it is the secret itself.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2010 Volume 43:1 edition of the Society for Photographic Education's journal "Exposure."