Comeraderie and comfort in the face of war: Harold Feinstein’s Draftee photographs in an upcoming exhibition

Cramped conditions, ship to Korea, 1952

“As I look at these photographs now I see again through the eyes of a 21-year-old from Coney Island, fresh off the boardwalk and thrown into a situation with my peers who could’ve been at Coney Island with me riding the cyclone or flirting with their girlfriend under the boardwalk, or cruising around town on a Saturday night. No one could have prepared us for the hell of war, and that’s as true now as it was then. But in spite of it all, we gravitated toward the one thing we all shared – being a bunch of young men, wanting to be home with the people we loved, and seeking the comraderie and comfort of each other to fend off the anxiety of going to war,” Harold Feinstein on his Draftee series

Draftees on troopship home, 1953

Harold did not go willingly to war. He was drafted along with 1.5 million other young men who served in the Armed Forces between 1950-1953. Yet he used his experience in the infantry as one more opportunity to bring forward the humanity of his subjects, whether they were American young men or Korean children. These photographs bring to mind a statement he made when discussing one of his Coney Island photographs, Haitian Man with daughter, 1949. “You need to see people through the eyes of someone who loves them.” As he did throughout his life, he brought that appreciative eye into his time as a draftee. This 3 minute excerpt taken from the documentary film Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein contains some deeper insights into how Harold’s army photographs speak to the broader message he sought to share in all of his work.

Here are a few quotes from this film clip:

Cramped Quarters, 1953

“A picture like this reminds us in many ways of the pictures that Harold made in Coney Island. He didn’t radically shift gears even though he was in a new place. His basic drive was to understand human emotions. In particular, kinds of physical closeness is what fascinated him; how bodies move together. He saw this in many ways as the kind of primary glue that holds this world together.” Sarah Kennel, Aaron Siskind Curator of Photography and Director of the Raysor Center for Works on Paper at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Four US soldiers sleep on a bench, Korea, 1953.

“They’re images you don’t see now. They’re images of men being intimate, being together, not being afraid of being in each others’ space. It gives you an overwhelming hope for humanity. Harold stops moments and says, ‘no, we’re worth saving.'” Max Schenk, photographer and printer for Feinstein

Two soldiers looking out train window, 1953

It is this basic sensibility of Harold’s eye and heart that makes me so glad to see his Draftee series being featured in an up-coming six month solo exhibition at
at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, which was recently voted the “best free museum” in the U.S. according to a USA Today survey. The exhibition, which opens on October 18, 2024 is concurrent with the opening of a new memorial to the Korean confiict.

View from port hole, 1952.

While most exhibitions of war photographs have focused on the vicissitudes of battle, this series focuses on the day to day life of the soldier during induction, basic training and being shipped out to Korea and then to the front lines, thus bringing the viewer into that intimate close up of human emotions referred to above. It allows for a kind of empathic connection to the experiences soldiers face leading up to combat, and I think this is a real contribution to the greater context of honoring the lives of those who risk or lose their lives in war. We can all relate to the fears, hopes and need for comeraderie found in these photos of young men headed off to a very uncertain future.

In addition to his closeness to his fellow draftees, Harold, formed relationships with the local population – something the soldiers were told not to do. But, ever the free spirit, he took his camera into the streets of Pusan to capture the day to day life of the local Korean population. This statement by curator Tony Casadonte with Lumiere Gallery in Atlanta about the photograph Korean children on bridge in Pusan, 1953 underscores the breadth of Harold’s concern for all those effected by war:

“[This] is a compelling photograph that both depicts an everyday scene of children congregating on a local bridge but also captures their uncertainty at seeing a western soldier in their midst. The shacks that line the river in this image point to their poverty, but also reveals the intimacy with which Feinstein looked at the country…A viewer can easily tell that Feinstein was standing among the children, when the image was made. He was not surveying them from afar. His physical proximity is an extension of his closeness to the Korean people.”

Korean children on village bridge, 1953
Many thanks to Robert Yellowlees and Tony Casadonte of Lumiere for their long-standing interest in Harold’s Draftee series and for curating the up-coming exhibition at The National Infantry Museum. You can view the curatorial essay of their on-line Memorial Day exhibition here

Postscript: Here is a short video of some images we found in the studio several years ago of the 1953 Civilian protests. Much of the population opposed the Armistice Agreement of July 1953 and wanted to continue fighting for a united Korea.These photographs have historical value in documenting the Korean conflict.