Photographs from Jeff DelaCruz’s Time on the Ground in Iraq
by Brett Leigh Dicks
It proved portentous that Jeff DelaCruz commenced his studies at Brooks Institute of Photography on September 11, 2001. As he made his way to class on his first day, he learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. Though the event occurred on the other side of the country, it would soon redirect the course of his life.
After graduating from high school and realizing he could not afford to fund his studies on his own, DelaCruz joined the United States Army Reserve. When he arrived in Santa Barbara, he became part of the city’s 425th Civil Affairs Battalion of the U.S. Army; when they shipped out to Iraq in 2004, the Brooks student went with them.
“When you join up during the Clinton administration, you don’t expect something like this to happen,” DelaCruz explained. “You don’t expect the World Trade towers to go down. You don’t expect the war in Iraq to happen. When I was 17, I couldn’t imagine those things happening. I knew war was a possibility, but I just didn’t believe I would have to be involved in something like that. When it became a reality, I knew it was going to be a life-changing thing.”
While serving on active duty with the Civil Affairs battalion in Iraq, DelaCruz used his camera not only to document what he was encountering, but also to ride out the emotional rollercoaster he was experiencing. His photographs are currently on display at the Brooks Institute’s gallery on Cota Street.
“Photography gave me a greater purpose,” explained DelaCruz. “I was blessed to have a good leadership squad who understood that I needed to do this in order to make it through the mission. War is an all-consuming thing, but it’s made up of all these individual events that can’t all be told. I wanted to tell those stories and to make war as realistic as possible.”
What quickly becomes apparent within this collection of images is DelaCruz’s remarkable sense of perception. He puts the viewer in a throng of Iraqi women as they learn of their pending relocation. He quietly observes the tender exchange between an American soldier and Iraqi girl. We ride along with soldiers and explore the aftermath of battles. This is not the perspective of a casual observer; it is the point of view of someone caught in the middle of it all. DelaCruz also captures the before and after: grave faces as Santa Barbara families bid farewell to the soldiers in his unit, and expressions of uninhibited joy upon their return. In capturing the realities he witnessed, the photographer helps dispel misconceptions about war.
“I am trying not to make this show political,” stated DelaCruz. “It’s not about a specific political issue; it’s more about war itself. I signed up because I had an idealized vision of war based on movies. Going to Iraq took the idealism away. I desired this horrible thing, and I got it. That’s what I want this show to do — I want it to show people the reality. I want them to think seriously about war as a solution. Is this really the way we should go about solving our problems?”
Now back at Brooks and preparing for graduation, DelaCruz spoke passionately about moving to Chicago and starting his own photographic business. His time in Iraq is behind him, but the experience of it and the photographs he took there will no doubt influence his future.
“I’ve been focusing on this show for a year now,” said DelaCruz. “I don’t want to make the most horrible portion of my life everything I am. But it has put what’s important into perspective. And it completely changed me — it made me a lot more edgy. I can’t drive in Los Angeles traffic anymore because that freaks me out. I also get upset about the things I did over there. But it did force me to grow up — maybe a little too quickly. And it has made me a better person.”
Soldier’s View: A Pictorial Reflection of the War in Iraq opens with a presentation and reception on Fri., Nov. 10 from 5-7pm at the Brooks Institute Learning Center, 27 E. Cota St. The show runs through Dec. 22. For more information, call 690-4912.