By Puloma Ghosh
Waltham, MA — After following a winding path, Thi Linh Wernau found herself wanting to pursue photography professionally, years after she had discovered a love for it during her college years. She returns to her passion with the series, “You. Are. Beautiful. A Tribute to Warriors,” an inspiring look at unique individuals in our society.
Her inspiration for the project began with the passing of her grandmother, who left Wernau a pillow with an excerpt from a poem stitched onto it that read, “I woke and found that life was duty.”
Around the same time, Wernau was walking through at her sister’s house and found, among a wall full of prints and paintings, one work that stood out to her: a simple text that said “You are beautiful.” Those words summed up the feelings she wanted to convey with her photography.
One day she picked up a medium format plastic toy camera, the LOMO Lubitel, which had sat in a box for a year after she bought it. She used it to begin photographing again and realized she had a message she wanted to convey.
After initially photographing a more general audience, Wernau began to move towards a more personal, political slant to the topic in her “Warriors” series. Wernau’s father had been a soldier, and one of her brothers followed suit and also enlisted. She herself had once very much wanted to enlist, but her path eventually took her elsewhere.
Years later, having grown up knowing the importance and courage of those who choose to serve our country, Wernau began to photograph veterans. Many of them have life-altering injuries, making their struggles in the armed forces a daily one, even after retirement. She sits down with them in a personal space, usually their homes, and listens to their stories. Each person has a unique perspective and journey. During these sessions she asks them to make a statement about what makes them beautiful, and takes photographs of them in their environments.
She began by reaching out to friends who were veterans, and then approaching people through social media and friends of friends. Eventually, she began to build a supportive network, and getting referrals from people she had worked with previously. Wernau compelled those she worked with to contribute to her project and help spread her message.
In addition to raising awareness with her photography, Wernau has been involved in community events and support organizations and events for veterans. Part of any money she makes through the sale of her photography goes to a charitable organization to help veterans. Her commitment to the cause extends beyond her art and into her actions. The opening reception for her upcoming exhibit at the McGladrey Gallery on October 15 will raise money for the Red Sox Foundation and Mass General Hospital Home Base Program that provides treatment for the invisible psychological wounds of war.
“Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives,” Wernau explained. “Even beyond that there is an unknown statistic about how many people are still in the battle. Maybe they’re not in the war, but they’re still battling something every day. It’s ongoing for them, and I think this project helps not only empower the vets I meet, but inspire others.”
After years of working on this project, Wernau has collected enough images to show how truly unique an individual and his or her experiences are. The veterans face the camera with pride and vitality that shows perseverance with each photograph capturing the subject’s inner beauty and personality. Juan, a 29-year-old permanently injured from his time served, sums up the spirit of the project well in his statement: “I am beautiful because I am unique.”
Wernau’s project resonates with that stitching on her grandmother’s pillow; the line, written by Boston-based poet Louisa May Alcott in the 1800s, came from her poem, “I Slept, And Dreamed That Life Was Beauty.”
(The opening reception for “Thi Linh Wernau: You. Are. Beautiful. A Tribute to Warriors,” a special event at which proceeds from art sales will benefit the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program, will be held on Wednesday, October 15 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the McGladrey Art Gallery, 80 City Square, Charlestown, Mass.
Admission to the reception is free, but the gallery requests that you RSVP by October 8 at http://bit.ly/1suZir0 or by email at TributeToWarriors@gmail.com. The key sponsors for this exhibition include the McGladrey Art Gallery, Wernau Asset Management and The New England Council. The exhibition will remain on view for three months. To view Linh’s work, visit thilinh.com/.)