Chester Simpson’s portraits of former prisoners of war, cropped and framed to the exact same dimensions, are spaced out in regular intervals across the stark white walls of Georgetown’s Matrix gallery. The uniformity suggests the underlying idea of his exhibition, “Portraits of Patriots”: that no single image will steal attention from another.
Simpson, 53, began working on the series in the ’90s, during his tenure as the director of photography at the Pentagon’s in-house newspaper the Pentagram. He drew an assignment to take a portrait of a small group of D.C.-area POWs who had gathered for a reunion and was fascinated by their accounts of torture and imprisonment.
Simpson decided to record the group’s stories and photograph each member; he used an informal network of former POWs to find additional participants. To date, Simpson has completed about 45 portraits of military and civilian captives from World War II through the first Gulf War, each accompanied by an account of its subject’s ordeals.
“When someone has been traumatized like that, the best thing for them to do is to forget the experience and go on with their lives,” says Simpson, who lives in Alexandria. “They don’t need a stranger like me calling ’em and dredging up those memories. In certain cases, I’ve photographed subjects who proved very reluctant in sharing their stories—part of the reason this process has taken me so long is that I don’t want to present any photo without a firsthand account.”
Some of the accounts are predictably terse, while others are flush with unsettling detail: Eddie Davis, captured behind enemy lines during World War II and the Korean War, recounts snapping off a fellow soldier’s frostbitten toes to help him survive. Bill Freeman, a veteran of the Korean War, describes a furtive escape attempt through the mountains with a broken leg: “Machine-gun bullets cut my name in the snow. One more step and it would have been the late Bill Freeman.”
Simpson’s methodology hasn’t changed much since the ’70s and ’80s, when he was a photographer for rock ’n’ roll magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem. “I never take more than 12 shots with each person,” he says. “I wait for them to tell me about themselves first, and I think about how I can best complement their stories with a single image.”
It’s no accident that the show’s digital prints are laid out like book pages, with images centered toward the top and text filling the bottom half of the sheet—Simpson is exhibiting the images to gauge interest in turning his work into a book.
“I’ve been trying to shop this around for a year now, and my agent has sent the proposal to 50 publishers,” he says. “Thirty-two have turned us down so far on the grounds that the material is depressing.
“But I think all these stories are uplifting, you know? You really can’t appreciate your freedom until you read about what these people have been through just to survive.” —Nick Green