Michael Stokes is showing the world a very different view of America’s wounded veterans.
His no-holds-barred photography has captured dozens of young wounded vets in ways the public is not used to seeing them: fit, happy and proud to show themselves.
Just consider his latest photos of Bobby Henline, a former staff sergeant badly wounded on his face and limbs by an improvised explosive device north of Baghdad in 2007. He dressed him in historically accented military garb with a stylized mask and prosthetic arm in the steampunk genre — a picture of strength and directness.
The result, Stokes said, was that, “After hanging with him, I didn’t see his scars anymore. There was a moment when I forgot he was injured.”
Stokes has portrayed other veterans with their muscled bodies — and missing limbs — on full display, as well as in provocative and proud images not often seen.
It was seeing these other photos that made Henline want to participate.
“I’ve always wanted to show who we are inside. I think it helps get awareness out there for wounded veterans, for other civilians with disfigurements, burns, amputations,” Henline explained. “This creates awareness and shows the beauty, shows who you are inside is really who you are, that the shell doesn’t matter that much.”
“Many of my subjects take the photos very seriously because they see it as an opportunity to express themselves,” Stokes noted. “Many of them have planned for it months in advance, and it is an opportunity for them to show the work that they’ve done, their recovery, to share their story with the world — whatever their personal story is — but we also have fun during the shoots.”
In his photos of Henline, Stokes styled the work in the steampunk genre — fantasy or science fiction that incorporates designs inspired by 19th-century industrial age machinery. The prosthetic in the photos was designed by a Marine veteran.
Other photos echo famous works of art, including the Venus de Milo and the Pieta.
Stokes’ portfolio of wounded veterans has grown as word of his work has spread through the veteran community. He has used some of the funds he’s raised through Kickstarter to make charitable contributions to veterans’ charities and hopes to do more when his book of photos, “Always Loyal,” is released on November 15, four days after Veterans Day.
Stokes, 52, a native of Berkeley, California, first become interested in photography in college, but he didn’t take it up full time until a few years ago. Much of his art has focused on the male figure, including nudes, and on historic photos of military men.
But in December 2012, he was introduced to wounded veteran Alex Minsky and the series of photos of today’s veterans took off.
Stokes said he has been asked whether he is “glamorizing war” with his photos, but he insisted that viewers must be the ones to decide.
“I want them to have the freedom to interpret it and digest it in their own way,” he said.
But Stokes added that photographing wounded veterans has itself taught him a message.
“One of the things I have learned from veteran models is they are most loyal to each other,” he said. “They will do anything for each other. That is a brotherhood and sisterhood civilians don’t get to enjoy.”