Theater of War

By  |  September 7, 2017
Jihad Lamp, Fort Polk, Louisiana. Photograph by Christopher Sims from “Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan.” To see more photographs and learn more about the project, visit Jihad Lamp, Fort Polk, Louisiana. Photograph by Christopher Sims from “Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan.” To see more photographs and learn more about the project, visit

A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 

Since 2001, Chris Sims, my longtime friend and colleague at the Center for Documentary Studies, has been engaged in investigating, with a profound and insistent curiosity, American military ventures from the perspective of the home front. He photographed inside an army uniform factory and followed an army recruiter for a year—a project that led to Hearts and Minds, his ongoing series about nationwide recruitment events—before embarking on his ten-year-long project on the “pretend” Iraqi and Afghan villages pictured in Theater of War. These villages, built on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases, are situated in the deep forests of North Carolina and Louisiana, and in a vast expanse of desert near Death Valley in California. Each base features clusters of villages spread out over thousands of acres, in a pretend country known by a different name at each base: Talatha, Braggistan, or “Iraq.”

Chris’s interest in documenting the home front is grounded in his experiences working as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (and by his many years at CDS, as a student, lecturer, and now, director of undergraduate education). So many photographs that artists, historians, scholars, and survivors hoped to find from World War II just didn’t exist. Photographs “were not saved or did not survive the war, or perhaps more often, were not made in the first place,” Chris writes. “My intent with Theater of War was to build a documentary record of images that would fill this type of gap in a future archive of war.”

We’re very proud to announce that Chris has received a 2017 Graham Foundation Publication Grant to support a book of photographs. A CDS Book of Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan will be published in 2019.

These surreal, often disarmingly humorous, villages—peopled by paid actors—serve as a strange and poignant way station for people heading off to war, and for those who have fled it. U.S. soldiers interact with pretend villagers who are often recent immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have now found work in America playing a version of the lives they left behind. The remainder of the village population is drawn from the local communities near the army bases, including spouses of active-duty soldiers as well as military veterans of America’s wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Sometimes Chris is a role player himself. As he describes it, “Sometimes I visit the villages with access provided by the military’s public affairs office; other times I am . . . playing the character of a war photographer for the ‘International News Network.’ Here, backstage in the war on terrorism, I see insurgents planting a bomb in a Red Crescent ambulance; American soldiers negotiating with a reluctant mayor; a suicide bomber detonating herself outside of a mosque; and villagers erupting in an anti-American riot. The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature.”

We at CDS are so pleased to share a few images from Theater of War as our latest contribution to The By and By. Chris finds so many ways to re-create the experience of being in these strange lands that the images seem more like encounters than portraits. Like the creators of Braggistan or Talatha or “Iraq,” he has carefully constructed a village of sorts for contemporary viewers, and for future audiences—a vivid visual history. That he is both an original and precise photographer makes his stagecraft about stagecraft that much more intriguing and persuasive. Truth is stranger than fiction.

—Alexa Dilworth, CDS Publishing and Awards Director 

2017 09 07 TOW2Green Mosque, Camp Mackall, North Carolina

2017 09 07 TOW3Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana

2017 09 07 TOW4Graffito, Fort Polk, Louisiana

2017 09 07 TOW5Casualty, Fort Polk, Louisiana

2017 09 07 TOW6Torso, Fort Bragg, North Carolina

2017 09 07 TOW7Iman’s Bodyguard, Camp Mackall, North Carolina
2017 09 07 TOW8Afghan Militia, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
All photographs by Christopher Sims from Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website

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Christopher Sims has an undergraduate degree in history from Duke University, a master's degree 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. He is the undergraduate education director and a lecturing fellow at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. His exhibitions include shows at the Houston Center for Photography, the Light Factory, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. He was selected as the recipient of the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers in 2010, named one of the “New Superstars of Southern Art” by the Oxford American in 2012, and was awarded the Arte Laguna Prize for Photographic Art in 2015. Most recently, he received a 2017 Graham Foundation Publication Grant. For more information about Christopher Sims, visit his website.