It’s all in the eyes.

The “American Veteran: A Story Without Words” exhibit features stark, black and white portraits of veterans of all ages. Some are laughing, some are serious and others are emotional. There are no words or captions to accompany the photos, and that’s intentional.

“This whole project is about being able to tell stories through eyes,” photographer Marcus “Doc” Cravens said.

Cravens made the photo essay for his senior thesis while studying photography at Montana State University in 2017. “American Veteran” is now being shown on campus in the Renne Library UIT center, hosted by the Exit Gallery, through the end of fall semester.

Cravens is a veteran himself, having served for nine years as a United States Navy corpsman. He said when he was first out of the military and studying at MSU, he wasn’t all that interested in interacting with other people. He wanted to keep to himself.

But, Cravens said, his wife encouraged him to branch out, and he decided to major in photography. That required interacting with lots of different people. To date, he’s taken portraits of around 115 veterans. They’ve served in Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Afghanistan and everywhere in between.

“I really wanted to portray that we’re just like everyone else. We represent the general population,” Cravens said.

Cravens hopes the photos lead to more conversations between those who have served and those who haven’t. He said veterans are sometimes stereotyped, or people think they’re intimidating. But everyone has a connection to a veteran, he said.

“American Veteran” has snowballed into a larger project that Cravens is directing at MSU called the Veteran History and Arts Initiative. With a $200,000 Humanities, Art and Social Sciences Grant from MSU, the initiative is funded for two years.

Students are already working on three different projects that will be unveiled throughout the year. “Project 513” is an exhibit of photos and audio featuring 12 local veterans, according to MSU. It’s being put together by a graduate seminar focused on oral history methodologies and will be shown at The Market at Ferguson Farm on Dec. 6 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Other projects include “Living Memories” — a photo essay documenting veterans’ tattoos and the stories behind them — and “Shadows of our Past,” which aims to pair local artists with families of veterans who have died to find ways to showcase the veterans’ memorabilia.

Cravens is also working to record and archive as many oral interviews with Montana veterans as possible, from wartime and peacetime. He wants to get stories from every county in the state, and before they’re lost to history. Montana has one of the highest ratios of veterans as residents in the country, about 1 in 10, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The initiative is about honoring veterans and capturing their stories,” Cravens said.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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