When photographer Jessica Hubbard first sat down to chat with a WWII veteran, she didn’t realize the impact it would have on her.
Now, she has started a new passion project to interview and photograph as many WWII veterans as possible in Hampton Roads and the Peninsula.
“I just felt really strongly about documenting their stories for our future generations,” she said. “There aren’t many left and I just thought about how my own kids would never get to hear these first-hand accounts.”
Hubbard, who is a photographer in Hampton Roads, first came up with the idea when she was doing a regular photo shoot for a family portrait. The family had brought their grandfather, who had been in the Army during WWII, to be part of the photo shoot.
While the rest of the members were getting ready, Hubbard sat down and started chatting with the veteran.
She said she was surprised when he started telling her stories of the war and she found herself just wanting to hear more.
“I got so emotional just chatting with him about the war and the things he did,” she said. “He just acted like he was proud of it but also with an attitude of knowing it was a job he had to do, so he did it.”
Hubbard snapped a few photos of the grandfather with his wife and eventually with the rest of the family. A few months later, she found his obituary and realized she had experienced something profoundly important.
Following that encounter, Hubbard said she had the idea to start a new passion project that documented the stories of these heroes before it was too late.
“The way I look at it, I feel like we always hear so much of the big names—these big battles and generals in the war,” she said. “I just wanted to get the chance to talk to some of the people that just got called up to service. It wasn’t part of their plan, they were just everyday people that sacrificed everything for this country.”
So Hubbard reached out to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and to Veterans Affairs and after a few months, she started hearing back. Recently, she said her email and social media has been full of WWII veterans and their families reaching out to share their stories.
She said mostly the emails and messages come from grandchildren of these veterans because many of them don’t use the computer. So far, the youngest person she has heard from is 94 years old.
Hubbard said she’s aware that talking about the war can be a challenge for most of these veterans. In messages from family members, she said she often hear that their grandfather won’t talk about his time in the war but they’re hoping Hubbard can find a way to document their memories.
“A lot of these service people wouldn’t talk about the war, but it seems like they’re talking to me,” she said. “I just feel like if we can get these stories documented, then the families can have them before it’s too late.”
So far, Hubbard has only done one interview but she’s preparing for many more. She said it’ll be a learning experience as she goes along but she plans to go into each interview and treat the veterans as though they’re an old friend. In doing so, she hopes they’ll feel more comfortable.
Eventually she plans to move on to hearing from veterans from other wars, such as the wars in Vietnam and Korea.
And one of her inspirations for eventually expanding her collection came from her own attic.
Hubbard said a while ago she found two huge boxes in her attic and discovered they were the preserved letters between her grandmother and grandfather, who was in the Navy during the Vietnam and Korean wars. She said they wrote each other back and forth every week throughout those wars and now she wants to find a way to preserve their connection.
“Just like with the stories, if they’re not preserved then they’ll deteriorate,” she said. “We’ve got to do something with them, it’s a shame to keep all these pictures and stories just sitting on my hard drive.”
With the project just getting underway, Hubbard said she isn’t sure what the end goal is. She wants to take the photos and stories and post them in blog format on her website so families and others interested can have easy access. In the future, she has thought of potentially hosting it as a gallery show, but for now she just wants to collect the stories.
“Passion projects are super important to any creative person,” she said. “I think it’s important to take a break from professional work to focus on something that really speaks to your soul like this.”
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