A Friends of the Arts grant is supporting senior Ashley Koenig’s photography and audio exhibit at Milner Library that explores the memories of World War II veterans through portraits of and interviews with the men.

Koenig’s Living His Story is on display through March 31 on the library’s main floor. The exhibit features photographs of seven veterans along with cases of war memorabilia and photographs of World War II re-enactors. Visitors can also listen to audio of Koenig’s interviews with the veterans while they view the exhibit.

Koenig, a photography and art history student from Stillman Valley, recently spoke about the exhibit and the importance of Friends of the Arts grants.

Tell me a little about the project.

All the photographs are from interviews I’ve done during interviews I’ve done with World War II veterans. I’ve done interviews (with 17 veterans) across the Midwest. I drive to their homes and ask them a series of questions about their experiences during the war and afterward I ask to photograph (them) for the project.

Why did you choose this subject?

ashley koenig

Ashley Koenig

I started photographing World War II re-enactments, and from that it has turned it into a larger project.

How did you find these veterans?

I’ve just been asking people that I know if they know any veterans. Sometimes it’s a family member or someone that goes to their church. So then I get their phone number and call them and ask if they will be willing to do an interview.

And what are you asking them?

I only ask three questions. I ask them when they were born, what year they enlisted or were drafted, and then where did you go. The interviews last anywhere from one hour to six hours. It’s been really incredible the response.

Describe what it has been like for you to learn about this.

The stories are just incredible. Sometimes they will have their family members present, and sometimes it will be the first time their families have heard the stories; sometimes they will ask to hear certain stories again. Sometimes it is the first time they have ever talked about it. Other times you can kind of tell they have told their experiences before.

Has there been anything that has surprised you from what they’ve said or any current that runs through all of them?

A lot of them are really humble, just extremely humble, about their service.

Why did you decide to put together the exhibit?

I had worked on this project for the last year. And then this fall I was approached and asked if I would be willing to do a show at the library. We started looking into how this could become something. Then I applied for the Friends of the Arts grant and received that, which was just such a blessing. That gave me the opportunity to go forward and really, really get into it. At first it was just the photographs. And then the audio component was added. So you can check out an iPod and listen to the interviews. Or there is a QR code, and you can scan that with your phone and listen to the interviews.

Walter Sturm

Walter Sturm, of Rockford, was one of the World War II veterans whom Ashely Koenig interviewed and photographed for her series. (Photo by Ashley Koenig)

And the audio matches up to each photograph?

Yes, I write on all the photographs. And I write three excerpts from their interviews and those excerpts correspond to the larger stories that are on the audio. So you can hear each of them tell their story.

Were any of them particularly memorable for you?

Jerome (Even). His granddaughter, Hanna Fry, goes here. That was the second interview that I did. His whole family was present, and he was at Pearl Harbor. We talked for like four hours. It was an incredible interview. Some of the stuff he said was so poignant. At one point, his daughter had asked him, “Did you ever think you would be 91?” Because he had just had his birthday. And he just looked straight at her and said, “I didn’t even think I would be 21.”

What do you think the students and people who visit this take away from it?

At the least, I hope they walk away with more of an awareness but hopefully a little bit of an understanding. I think a lot of people can relate to it just because they either have grandparents or parents that have served or they know someone. I think a lot of people will really relate to the show.

Why do you think the Friends of the Arts grants are important?

I think they give students the opportunity to show their work and the availability to take a project and really expand it and to really grow it into something that the community will enjoy and the students will enjoy.

Koenig is set to graduate in May. She plans to take a semester off before graduate school to work on this project and do an internship at a gallery or a museum.