The idea for Always Loyal, a book of revealing portraits of 14 Gulf War veterans, first came to photographer Michael Stokes more than two years ago when he met amputee veteran Alex Minsky, who wanted to pursue a career in modeling.
Stokes, who specializes in fitness photography – often with an erotic bent – vowed to shoot Minsky the way he would any other professional model. He wanted to avoid the sorrowful tone that sometimes accompanies amputee photos while only emphasizing the lost limb. Instead, he was going to focus on his subject’s allure.
“Why can’t an amputee be shot with glamour?” Stokes says to PEOPLE. He started capturing a few more this way. “These veterans were making themselves vulnerable and deserved to be treated like any other model. If they could handle it, why not?”
Stokes’ idea to photograph wounded veterans in the style of fitness models lends his portraits a strong sense of empowerment – and serious sex appeal. Though he did notice one surprising difference between amputees and professional models.
“Amputees work harder,” Stokes says. “One time I was at the beach and I told a [traditional] model, ‘Now we’re going to walk down to these rocks,’ and he was like, ‘Way down there? I’m not doing that.’ And I thought, even double amputees would drag themselves to the end of the beach if I asked.”
As word of Minsky’s daring photos spread across the veteran community, many people approached him about participating in his project, which he is funding through Kickstarter. The reaction from the models themselves was more positive than he could have dreamed.
“I’ll never forget the second soldier I shot. ‘This photo shoot was the best day of my life,’ ” Stokes recalls him saying. ” ‘I could never imagine doing something like this. Being naked in front of somebody for so long – it’s an incredible experience.’ And he hadn’t even seen the photos yet!”
A mother, upon seeing Stokes’ portraits, reached out to say she had renewed hope for her 4-year-old son, who had just been fitted with a prosthetic.
Of course a few reactions were less positive – particularly regarding the photos’ risqué nature.
“Some people didn’t think that it was dignified for soldiers to be partially nude,” Stokes says. “Others complained about guns in the photos, or some of the guys smoking cigarettes. I’m far more interested in pleasing my model and staying true to my concept than being politically correct.”
See the photos: