Hannah Krakauer, “A Portrait of War”
Host Intro Ideas:
- Imagine a giant wall—25 feet high and the width of an entire room—with a rough map of the United States in little squares of color. And on every single one of these postcard-sized pieces of
colored paper, there’s an individual portrait of a solder who’s died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
- And this map that she’s put together has had a big effect on people. Her work was recently
featured at the Venice Biennale: one of the most important showcases for up and coming artists.
The piece has brought her huge amounts of attention, both from within the art world and in the
Emily: So this is Corey Spates from Lagrange, Georgia, and he died on February 10th, 2008, so
very recently, so there’s this pencil drawing of him and then there’s text below his portrait. So
this one says, “Spates, who attended Troop High School had left for his second deployment in
November. He and his wife celebrated their first anniversary last week.”
Narrator: Emily Prince works in a small studio in San Francisco. Her studio walls are filled with
artwork from all different periods in her career. An oil painting from college of small colored
diamonds radiating in all directions, large illustrations of bright blue flowers and leaves, and a
scrappy collage of a horse and a brown paper bag above her work table. [pause] Stacked
unassumingly in the far corner on the floor are a handful of archival boxes. Inside these boxes
are the most recent part of her current project, a project which has brought her attention from all
over the world. The project to draw individual portraits of every single American soldier killed in
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Hannah: How many portraits have you drawn to date?
Emily: So I have 3892 from the Iraq war and 546 from the war in Afghanistan.
[music transition A]
Narrator: Emily grew up in a small town—
Emily: Which is not really a town, to be honest…
Narrator: —called Gold’s Run, up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Driving by on the freeway, you’d hardly know that anyone lived there. Emily lived with her family off of a dirt road leading
deep into the woods.
Emily: We had lots of wild animals, like deer and bears were common visitors on our property…
And it was great. I loved growing up there. I have fantasies of trying to move back there if I ever
Narrator: Emily started drawing at a very young age. First, it was simple, filling in coloring books of Pinocchio in kindergarten. By high school, Emily had set out to make her artwork as
photorealistic as possible. She was determined to perfect the art of making something look real.
The first time she did it,
Emily: I was a freshman in high school and it was almost randomly a photo of Keith Richards
from a Rolling Stones magazine, and I didn’t even know who he was and I’m sure I would not
have recognized Rolling Stones music if someone had played it for me, but, he had feathers in
his hat and some kind of silk blouse and a velvet jacket, so there were all these different textures,
and his face had, like a million wrinkles in it, so it was this really exciting and varied thing to
draw and I remember being really proud of it, and even now I look back on it and… I’m pleased
with it now in the skill I had and I kind of think that now that I don’t value that as much I
probably wouldn’t have the patience today to sit down with something like that and make it look
that, you know, real…?
[music transition A]
Narrator: Growing up in such a rural environment, it was a bit of a shock when she decided to move to San Francisco after college. She felt lost and overwhelmed—she’d never lived in a city
before, and it was so easy to feel like a stranger, even in her own home. She wanted to get to
know this place that was so new to her, so she set out to do that, through drawing.
Emily: The first project I did—and I don’t think I consciously set out to do it for that reason, but
anyway—I did these catalogs of what was in this apartment that I’d moved into to get to know my new home, so I would take all of these different objects in the house and kind of organize
Hannah: Like what kinds of objects?
Emily: Yeah, like, on one drawing there’s all the knives, or on another drawing there’s all the
chairs, or all the lamps, or Japanese record covers, or um, two-dimensional birds, or three-
dimensional birds, or pictures of horses… things like that.
Emily: But I kind of lost my steam on the catalog drawings in my house, just because at first they
were very fulfilling to me to do and a joy, but at a certain point they felt too self-reflective and I
wanted to do something that was less about me and more about something else… and I intended
to do, originally I thought I would make 100 drawings just for a nice round, metric-y number, but
I did 52 in the end, and then I felt my energy needed to be put elsewhere so then I stopped.
[music transition A]
Emily: I had been doing those catalog drawings, which were like making a portrait of my home,
but rather than one holistic picture it was looking the thing and all of its individual parts, so
things all one at a time, like one pair of scissors at a time, or one dishtowel, or whatever… I felt
like that way of working made a lot of sense to me, like a kind of map-making, but not a linear
kind of map but like an organizing and ordering of something, and trying to familiarize myself
with something, learn about something, investigate something, through drawing.
[turning point—music transition B]
Narrator: Emily needed a new project, a new investigation—something that was outside of
herself. This tool of map-making that she’d discovered, of breaking down an overwhelming whole into digestible little parts, seemed like a great way to approach a problem. As for choosing
this new project, Emily says that it just sort of chose itself.
Emily: There were a million different things that I could have chosen to make an investigation on,
but at the time, and still, something that I felt really drawn towards or was compelling to me, was
wanting to dig a little deeper under the surface of the statistics that you hear all the time, like five
soldiers died today, and two another day, and now there are 300 dead total, or whatever… but I
felt like that number was an abstraction and I felt like that situation that it was describing really
deemed an elaboration.
[music transition B]
Narrator: So Emily sat down to explore the statistics of the war. She broke down the numbers of
soldiers killed each day into their individual parts, person by person, one at a time. It’s become a
piece in progress that she appropriately calls, “American Servicemen and Women Who Have
Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis, Nor the
Afghanis).” And right from the get-go, Emily knew the commitment she was making. She was in it for the long haul.
Emily: From the very beginning I felt like, I’m going to draw all these people.
Hannah: Every single one?
Emily: That was my plan, yeah. And there are some that I haven’t drawn portraits of because
there aren’t pictures available of everybody, at least from what I’ve found in my research, and
the people for whom there’s no photo available, they still get a card and a place in the archive
that I’m making, but there’s an empty rectangle on the card instead of a portrait, and their name
is there, and when I install it they get a place on the wall.
Narrator: When it’s fully installed, the piece occupies an entire wall, 25 feet high and the width
of the whole room. It takes roughly the shape of the United States, as each portrait is placed at
about the location of the person’s hometown. As Emily herself says, it’s so big that it literally
overwhelms your body. But despite its size, the piece is meant to be a collection of individual
things. Each one can be examined and taken in on its own.
Hannah: Who was the first soldier that you drew a portrait of?
Emily: Well, I can remember his face completely, but I actually can’t remember his name—I
think he was from Wyoming, and I remember I used this kind of tan colored paper because he
had kind of olive colored skin and black hair and kind of thick eyebrows and he looked a lot like
this kid I went to high school with named Sean Brown, and I think he was pretty young—like 19,
Hannah: When you sit down to do a portrait, what’s your process?
Emily: I have a rhythm that I go through with each one. I get the picture off of the internet, and I
read the article… then I cut the individual pieces of paper for the portraits to go on and I measure
out all the widths and lengths in the face—like the length and width of the eyes I measure, and the nose and the mouth and the eyebrows, and the length of the face from forehead to chin, and
the width from ear to ear… so I take all these measurements and then put dots on the page and
then freehand, I draw the face, but I have those dots as a reference. I’m not normally that
concerned with things being that accurate, but in this case I feel like the important thing is that
these individuals are shown so if they’re not shown in the most accurate way I can draw them I feel like I’ve missed the point.
[music transition B]
Emily: And then after I’ve made the drawing I add the text. The text comes from articles that I
read and I try to just call out whatever information is there that seems most biographically
specific to that individual, so less the stuff of, like, he fought in this troop and less… I try to take
not the things about war, like I never put in how they die because I want it to be about their life
and what made them the individual that they were. Sometimes they’re really, really specific, like,
this person was really into drawing and he could draw ships really well, or, this person always
liked to wear army clothes and always shopped at the army surplus store from the time he was a
little kid, things like this.
Hannah: How many hours a week do you devote to drawing these portraits?
Emily: Well, it always just depends on how many there are to draw, but I always try not to draw
more than ten, because I feel like if I draw more than ten in a day it could become too
mechanical, so ten is kind of like… it’s sacred up until then, and then after ten it would be too
many and my eyes would get fatigued to it and I’d stop paying attention.
Hannah: How long do you spend on each of these portraits?
Emily: Each of them take me 30 minutes to draw, which is kind of fast, but they’re small—
they’re like a wallet-sized photograph—they’re just drawn with pencil, but if you add up all the ones that have been made it’s thousands of hours all together.
Hannah: Are any of those portraits here right now? (55:30) (sorry, the time is just a reference for
Emily: I do have some—do you want to have a look?
[rustling in background]
Narration: [over rustling] Emily goes to the corner of her studio and picks up one of the five or
so archival boxes off the floor. They’re relatively small, and inside are a series of postcard-size
portraits, each contained within its own envelope. They’re neatly stacked and leaning against one
another inside the box.
Emily: So I have them in these archival boxes that my mother gave to me… These are the most
Hannah: How many would you say we’re looking at right now in this box?
Emily: Well, I’ve discovered that I’m really bad at guessing when I’ve tried, so I would guess a
hundred, maybe there’s more, maybe there’s less than that.
[turning point—music transition C]
Narration: Sitting down next to this box full of portraits, I can’t help but feel a little
overwhelmed. Something about seeing each person on his own page so cleanly stacked and
systematically organized makes me feel the weight of it all. I know that each card represents
someone who has died—and not just an abstract person, but someone whose face I can see right
before me—and beyond that, I know that these are only a hundred or so of the thousands of
portraits she’s drawn. I don’t quite know how to handle it all. Emily, though, has a different
Emily: It would not be honest of me to say that when I spend 8 or 10 hours drawing these in a
day, I’m like sad for 8 or 10 hours. It’s not like that—I don’t think it would be humanly possible
to sustain that energy or focus and be totally present with it all the time… but I try to take a
moment with each portrait and just remind myself of what I’m doing because it would be really easy to get mechanical about it, and so I try to take a moment during each drawing and recognize
that this is a person who had this great trauma that’s rippling out into their family…
[music break C]
Emily: Some of the faces are just sad to me, but even more than the faces actually the thing that
has resulted in the most emotional moments for me in doing this, or the most profound
experiences are reading the articles, because the face is one thing but then knowing some
background information and some of the stories are just totally tragic.
Hannah: Like, do you remember any one specific story?
Emily: Stories of, like, a family who, this wasn’t the first child that they lost, like another brother
died in a car accident the year before… things like that, or, people who were there in the war so
earnestly and then they end up dead…
Emily: I gave a talk recently at PSU and a woman came up to me and—wow, I couldn’t believe
this—she had five friends who’ve died in this war, and that was unfathomable to me to even
have one person, but five… and she was crying… Those moments then, beyond reading the
newspaper articles, when those moments have happened, have been the very most moving
because it’s a step beyond reading the articles because it’s hearing from a person who had a
living relationship with this person whose portrait I’ve drawn.
Emily: Luckily for me, I guess, all of these people have been really supportive, and that in a way,
if I could hope for anyone’s approval in the process, their blessing is more important to me than
the sanction of an art critic, because I feel like in a way this information belongs to them more
than it does to me… and I imagine there could be a million different responses and I’ve just
happened to hear from the people who are supportive, and it’s meant a lot to me.
[music transition C]
Emily: I have lots of my own doubts that come up and repeat about this project; the biggest and
most nagging one to me is that I don’t have nationalistic feelings and I worry that the piece can come off as being potentially one-sided because it’s not showing those Iraqis who’ve died or Afghans who’ve died… I can’t draw their faces in the same way that I can draw the American
faces because you can get pictures of Americans really easily and you cannot of the Iraqis. So I
can’t get the pictures, and also, I am not an Iraqi, I am an American, so I have somewhat of a
read on our culture and this feels—I feel like this is ethically okay for me to make these portraits. However, not knowing anything about Iraqi culture, I can’t make that kind of assumption—I
don’t know whether it would be culturally appropriate or not for me to do that. Also, once I did a
calculation just to think, what if I had all the pictures?, and there have been so many Iraqi people
who’ve died, and if I lived for a hundred years and I worked on it eight hours a day I wouldn’t be
able to finish.
Emily: So faces were out of the picture, and I thought, well can I show the faces and then have a
graph with at least dots to show the Iraqi deaths, but that seemed really wrong to me, too,
because that would set up a visual hierarchy where an American gets a whole portrait and an
Iraqi gets a dot, and it seemed better to not go there than to do something like that that seemed so
Emily: So I worry about things like that… um, but, I am at the same time an imperfect human
and I do feel like this is the best that I can do for this project.
[music transition C/D]
Emily: I still feel like it’s a really small thing—like any one of these people represents an actual
human life and their family is mourning the loss of that person, and I feel like that’s where
something profound is and all I’ve done is made a drawing of them, so with any kind of
perspective it feels like almost nothing.
Emily: But, sometimes when I was figuring out what to draw in those catalog drawings, like
which objects will I draw today, I’d pick up maybe the flashlights and then I’d think, “Well, is
this valid enough? To draw flashlights?” Or I’d worry that maybe it was arbitrary, what I’d
picked, but these are never that way—never arbitrary.
Hannah: Do you think you’ll keep up with this project for a much more extended period of time?
Emily: Sure, I mean, I feel committed to it for as long as the situation keeps going, and it would
be hard for me to stop—the longer that I do it the more attached I’ve become and it doesn’t even
feel like art to me any more, it feels more like a personal practice, even a spiritual practice that I
go back to every week and spend time with. I could not not do it now—I couldn’t have looked at all these faces so far and then stop. It’s just a part of my life now.