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Ann Marlowe

A World at Attention (or, “If you turn your head away you will miss everything”)

Jonas Dovydenas’s photographs on the USS Bonhomme Richard
By Ann Marlowe

March 1 2016
Jonas Dovydenas’ photographs from the Bonhomme Richard’s winter 2015 in the Pacific deployment reveal an aesthetic and a distinctive way of life hidden to most of us.

Navy culture is further from everyday civilian life than Army culture. The Army is about camouflage, earthtones, gravel, mud, Hescos and automatic weapons. The Navy, in Jonas’s photographs, is greytones, primary colors, polished steel, and the northern winter sea.

This group of 456 photographs slowly, cumulatively shows us the Navy’s underlying culture of continuous attention. They both document and produce a mode of meditative alertness.

There’s a famous passage from “The Great Gatsby” in which the narrator, Nick, reflects on his experience in World War One: “When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever..”

By definition, any armed service is a world in uniform. But “moral attention” is something else, and Jonas’s work aboard the BHR evokes it. There’s the moral attention of the photographer himself, and also that of his subjects, the incredibly diverse, though mainly male and mainly young seamen and Marines on the BHR. Even when these people are laughing, there’s a seriousness underneath which Jonas brings out, a sense that each man and woman daily consults his conscience. There is also, despite the uniforms, a wonderful individuality – an individuality that becomes, in the course of hundreds of photographs, an ethical statement of its own.

There’s something different here from the equally individual infantrymen and paratroopers I’ve spent time with in Afghanistan (a place where Jonas has also worked). Maybe this difference comes from being on a ship, and from being the kind of person who has chosen a career aboard ships, whether as an officer or enlisted.

Inside a tent on a FOB in Afghanistan, the young enlisted man can listen to heavy metal under a Harley Davidson poster, then go out to the smoking pit and shoot the bull with his friends. Often there’s a rudimentary coffee shop on base. It looks a bit like the world at home, if more ragtag and improvised. But it’s also a vulnerable life, which can be cut short by a mortar or an IED at any time.

There’s nothing aboard the BHR that looks like civilian life, unless your civilian life is lived mainly inside a windowless room full of engines. Being on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is discontinuous from civilian existence. The danger isn’t from hostile fire, most of the time, but from the basic fact of being at sea. (During Jonas’ time on board the BHR was off Okinawa; her homeport is Sasebo, on the southern tip of Japan.)

Life aboard the great American warships, the Ohio-class submarines and amphibious assault ships and
aircraft carriers, demands constant awareness. As a tattoo on one arm says, “If you turn your head away you will miss everything”. The line is from a “metalcore” song called “If He Dies” by an obscure Hampton, VA band, Glass Cloud.

Jonas shows us obliquely just how formidable the BHR is, with her cavernous well deck – 266 feet by 50 – her flight deck, her bulk against the empty sea. She’s one of the US Navy’s eight Wasp-class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, which are, at 40,500 tons, the world’s biggest “amphibious warfare” ships. Bonhomme Richard’s purpose is to bring warriors from the sea to the shore where they will fight, while providing – like an aircraft carriers – a full flight deck for helicopters and Harriers. Bonhomme Richard deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, 2001-2) and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and also on the rescue of the sunken Korean ferry in 2014.
But from a visual standpoint, she is a huge complicated piece of machinery that interacts with other, merely big pieces of complicated machinery, like the more than 40 helicopters and 5 Harriers she can hold, plus five Abrams tanks and 70 or 80 trucks when she is carrying a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

Living on the BHR demands a zero tolerance for error mentality. The ship is powered by steam rather than a submarine or aircraft carrier’s onboard nuclear power plant, but this is still a no-relax zone. Many, many things can cause serious problems on a ship, even in peacetime. The greatest dangers are fire and leakage. Fire apparatus is everywhere in these photographs and a small group of them show crew members in fire protection hoods, which look like dun-colored ski masks. Bulkheads allow different areas of the ship to be sealed off in case of a disaster. Lots of things can go wrong. Signs remind everyone to clear their weapons once they come aboard, while enormous letters on the flight deck warn against helicopter rotors.

The BHR’s design reinforces this reality of constant attention. It’s profoundly unnatural, not least because there are no plants and no animals on board. But the way color works on the ship is also unnatural, and this is something Jonas reveals again and again.

Since BHR is after all “battleship grey”, some of the photos can look at first glance as if they’re black and white. But in most of Jonas’ photographs, color is inescapable. The BHR was designed that way: flight deck uniforms and essential equipment like firehoses, crankwheels, certain machines and parts are brightly colored. Hue is used here to draw the eye to crucial equipment and to separate out job functions. If a pilot is making an emergency landing on a flight deck, he or she needs to know immediately which team of deck workers are where. It’s an environment where color has been drained away and then put back in immediately readable form: primary colors, red, yellow and blue, fully saturated, straight from the paint can, each found in only one hue.

For safety reasons, each flight deck worker’s job function is marked by a different color vest and uniform and hat. Yellow and red are the most common colors, because they draw attention, and there are fire engine red and bright yellow life vests and lots of red and yellow lines on the flight deck, and even a mop that’s yellow and red. Many seamen wear uniforms of (what else?) Navy blue. But there are some surprises, some departures from the unsaturated: one occupational specialty wears a rich Wedgewood blue; another, a green midway between Kelly and grass. A third group of uniforms are a vivid violet, and this violet repeats on a set of pipes. Both times, it shocks. Then there are the vivid, sometimes exuberantly clashing tones of the unit patches on pilots’ flightsuits.

The key word for the look of the ship is plenitude: so many pipes, chains, gauges, levers, valves, endlessly repeated. How to remember the sequence for pulling and turning and pushing? One must have a mind for this, as some people have a mind for paper. The men and women who work with these pieces of metal are the kind of people who have put four heart appliques on what looks like a generator and decorated machines with shark cartoons. They treat machines like pets, the pets that aren’t on board.

And the basic facts underlying life on the BHR are that space is tight and you can never fully relax. A ship that is 844 feet long and 105 feet broad sounds big, but not when you add three thousand people. The BHR carries, in addition to a crew of around 1100, an entire 1900-person Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The meager spaces devoted to recreation – watching movies, a chess/checkers/backgammon board we see used to study Japanese and listen to music through headphones- have nothing calming about them. Intertwined pipes dangle from the ceiling and snake around walls, which are sterile white. There’s bad fluorescent lighting.

Nor are sleeping quarters a refuge. For one thing, there’s almost no privacy unless you’re one of the top officers. One enlisted bunkroom sleeps twelve in three rows of bunks, the bottom just inches from the floor, the top jammed against the ceiling. In another, the inhabitants are sitting on the floor or on bunks, just inches from each other, engrossed by their laptops. One photo brings us nearly inside the bunk of an officer, with black and white print sheets. Looking closer, the black images on the sheets are bats. He’s reading a book in the 18 inches or so between the sheets and the bunk overhead, and the reading lamp is just inches from his head. And below him is another bunk. It requires a certain mental toughness to ignore the incredibly close quarters and enjoy that book.

The kitchen is as chilly and clean as an operating theater.

So there’s not much room for the outward expression of individuality, but again, it seems that for the people who choose this life, that’s just fine.

Maybe it’s Jonas’s personality, but an astonishing number of his subjects look happy, delighted to be exactly where they are, like the female in a navy jumpsuit in a tightly packed engine room, who seems incredibly happy to be working in this claustrophobic, zero tolerance for error space. They’re grinning as Jonas captures them at their desks, on the flight deck, in claustrophobic rooms full of pipes. (The BHR is steam-propelled). I’ve never seen people this happy in any office. This happiness suffuses not only the jocular young confident Marines but also the “back office” people – the cooks, the supply clerks, the nurses.

Maybe this is why they seem more attractive than the average person, their faces as symmetrical as anything else on board, despite the rather frightening onboard meals that Jonas also shows us. Anyone who thinks women look better in makeup should see these photos.

Jonas has written, “I don’t have time to record what is not right or ugly, though I know there is plenty of it out there.” But in 456 photos taken over three weeks, it’s not easy to put a gloss on things. Jonas has accessed an underlying reality that may surprise us civilians: this life offers a great gift to those who embrace it.

The great warships are like floating medieval monasteries in that almost every moment has its task, and thus its purpose, which can be immensely comforting. There is no room for existential dread when there is a “why” for everything. Many of the seamen on board are engineers or technicians of one kind or another; they belong to professions where questions have right and wrong answers. This is another way that life aboard ship is different from life on an outpost in Afghanistan, for instance. Most of what goes on there is in the great moral grey zone we know from civilian life.

And that might be why the only people who aren’t grinning are the handful of men who run the Bonhomme Richard, because command decisions aren’t always cut and dried. It’s the agony of making the right call that has put deep furrows on the face of Captain Joey “J. T.” Tynch, who appears in a half dozen photos.
Jonas met him on an earlier assignment in Afghanistan where he was a Provincial Reconstruction Team commander, perhaps the quintessential “no right answers” job. In one photograph the Captain is feeling the texture of the flight deck (epoxy and black grit) and in a couple of others he’s looking down on the flight deck from the bridge – telling you what you don’t yet know, that he’s a naval aviator, a helicopter pilot by training.

Yet there is also a mysterious deep calm about Tynch, and about the other two high ranking officers aboard. The exec officer or XO, Jeff Ward, also an 0-6 (full bird colonel rank) is captured making a phone call and with the colonel in the bridge. He now commands the BHR. LtCol Mike Wilonsky, Battalion Landing Team Commander of the MEU that boarded the BHR while Jonas was there, appears in some of the photographs. Shaven-headed just as a Marine lieutenant colonel would be in the movies, he is now addressing international security studies at Yale for a year, not at all like in the movies.
As we take leave of the BHR it’s worth noting one more presence in Jonas’s photographs besides ship and crew: the sea, always with a personality of its own, sometimes thrashing at the well deck’s open end, sometimes placid, even lakelike, sometimes viewed with frightening immediacy from the vertiginous height of ladder-like stairs, sometimes more remotely from the glassed –in bridge.

The constant horizon of the sea may also have something to do with the moral attention Jonas evokes in these photographs. An army’s medium is land, and an army usually is trying to defend or to take a piece of land for a country or a cause. Anywhere that an army is stationed is likely to be a war zone. A navy’s medium is water, but it’s not trying to capture water. A ship is usually on the way somewhere, or conducting exercises, as the BHR was in winter 2015, but the water itself is neutral. It both connects BHR with the rest of the world and makes of it an island. A sailor is always aware of the majestic force of the sea, and of human frailty before it. A soldier may convince himself that he is master of all he surveys, but a sailor never can. From this humility, perhaps, comes calm and a sense of proportion.

Lt. Col. Mike Wilonsky, USMC

Lt. Col. Mike Wilonsky, USMC

In the 21 years I have worn the cloth of my nation, I have never seen such amazing photographs of some of our nation’s finest Marines and Sailors.  As the Commanding Officer of 2d Battalion 4th Marines, it was an honor for us to have Jonas capture our lives on film for three weeks.  The Marines you are looking at are part of 1,200 man infantry unit stationed in Camp Pendleton, CA.  However, during this period, we were attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) based in Okinawa, Japan.  The 31st MEU is a 3,000+ person unit made up of  a (1) Ground Combat Element (2) Air Combat Element, and (3) Combat Logistics Battalion. Our unit makes up the Ground Combat Element and we are designated as Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/4 during this period, and affectionately referred to as The Magnificent Bastards.  In order to support the 31st MEU, our unit was broken down into (1) Vertical Assault Company—trained and qualified as the infantry company that travels on aircraft to accomplish their mission (2) Amphibious and Mechanized Assault Company—trained and qualified as the infantry company that travels in Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) to accomplish their mission (3)  Combat Rigid Raiding Craft Company (CRRC)—trained and qualified as the infantry company that travels on little black boats (referred to as CRRCs) to accomplish their mission (4) Weapons Company—trained and qualified to support the other three companies on any assigned task/mission (5) the artillery battery—trained and qualified to support the maneuver companies in order to assist them in accomplishing their assigned mission, and lastly (6) Headquarters and Service Company—trained and qualified to support the entire BLT with communication support, logistical support, medical support, and engineer support.

The pictures you are viewing we taken during our initial at-sea period of our six month deployment in support of the 31st MEU.  In fact, as we were moving our gear onto the ship, Jonas was already capturing our Marines and Sailors onto his camera.  The pictures are so refreshing because they are not staged.  What you are looking at is Marine and Sailors familiarizing themselves with shipboard life. During this three week period, we worked with our Navy counterparts to conduct numerous small arms (rifle and pistol) live-fire qualification exercises, numerous CRRC and AAV launch and recovery exercises and countless vertical assault fly-aways utilizing the MV-22 (Ospreys).  The pictures represent the best and brightest in our warrior class of society today.  Marines and Sailors from BLT 2/4 spent a few more months on ship after Jonas departed; however, our warrior spirit looked as great on day 180 of our deployment as it did when these photos were taken.  Our BLT journey began when we conducted graduate level live-fire in the desert in 29 Palms, CA, climbed the steep Sierra-Nevada Mountains, and assaulted the beaches in and around the coastline of southern California—and our journey ended when we returned from Okinawa, Japan back to sunny So. Cal– after an exciting 18 months together.

Jonas, thank you very much for your hard and work and efforts in capturing the Magnificent Bastards on film.  I truly appreciate what you did for our men. –Bastard 6