Christopher Sims earned a BA degree in history from Duke University in Durham, an MA in visual communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MFA in studio art from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. His interest in history and documentary photography led him to work as a photography archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., and to his current position as Undergraduate Educator Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he is also Lecturing Fellow in Documentary Arts. Sims was selected as the 2010 winner of the Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer, and his work is found in the collections of The Baum Foundation, San Francisco; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, Durham.
Sims uses photography to explore issues surrounding modern warfare. Previously, he traveled to Guantanamo Bay to document the American detention center there; he also has a body of work featuring boys playing video war games, and he has charted the work of military recruiters. He explains that his interest in chronicling our current state of military affairs is rooted in his knowledge of the gaps in the photographic record of World War II, gained while serving as archivist at the Holocaust Museum. Not wanting to let such a void occur again, he intends to create a record of images that would prevent such a gap from existing in a future archive of war.
One of Sims’s projects has been to record the “pretend” Iraqi and Afghan villages built across thousands of acres of training grounds at U.S. Army bases in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Polk, Louisiana; and near Death Valley in California. These sites are elaborate: Fort Polk contained sixteen villages at the height of their use, with the largest towns including faux mosques, municipal centers, and markets staffed with vendors and stocked with pretend goods. Immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, spouses of American soldiers, and amputees (some of whom are American veterans of previous wars) are hired to act out roles in the villages. For his Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan series, Sims was granted access to the villages and sometimes even played the role of a war photojournalist himself. He notes that by the end of a training day, hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay dead, simulating the risks of real combat abroad for soldiers who may never have left the country. Yet one wonders how well this highly controlled fantasy, set on American soil with no real danger, can actually prepare them. Sims’s photographs capture some of this tension between the simulated fantasy of the American training grounds and the real dangers abroad.
Jihad Lamp (2006), for example, presents a very flat, claustrophobic shot of a makeshift building with dusty old office furniture stacked haphazardly. Decorative objects—lamp and vase with flowers—have been painted on a wall. Scrawled in English on the lamp is the word “JIHAD,” suggesting a somewhat naive attempt to imagine an enemy domicile.
Sims further develops the bizarre juxtaposition of familiar and foreign, safe and dangerous in Green Mosque (2006). The quiet image presents a deep green “mosque” set against a landscape of tall pine trees and a rich carpet of pine needles. The simulated foreignness of the mosque contrasts strongly with the familiar foliage of North Carolina. Casualty (2005) further develops this contrast between war fantasy and reality. In the villages, soldier trainees wear special vests that let them know when they have been hit by bullets or an IED. In the scene Sims’s has captured a fallen soldier resting against a Louisiana pine tree, a far cry from the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Similarly, the soldier’s pretend “death” is hardly convincing. Sims’s photographs highlight the inevitability that these pretend villages have more in common with the no-risk scenarios of video war games than the actual high stakes of real combat that the soldiers will soon be facing in the field.