You may not have been to an art gallery recently, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen Suzanne Opton’s war photography.
The soldiers in her pictures have blank stares and vacant eyes; their portraits seem to look past the viewer. And now, they are part of Opton’s newest series titled “The Soldier Billboard Project,” which opened Tuesday at several Metro stations around D.C. and focuses on the harsh realities of war for young veterans returning home.
The subjects of the photos, soldiers at Fort Drum who have recently returned from Iraq, are captured in eerily up-close poses, aiming to portray the serious struggle they will face while acclimating to civilian life.
Opton was inspired by the unsettling reality that her son would have been of draft age if the government still drafted soldiers. She was curious about the soldiers’ unforgettable experiences and how they would carry them home. This led her to select the pose with a soldier’s head on the ground and a blank stare across his face.
“That is the way you see your lover or your children. It is very intimate. There is that implication of having fallen,” Opton said in an interview. “I’m sure soldiers think about dying all of the time, so to take the pose is something different.”
Opton has also photographed Iraqis in Jordan who fled their country when the war broke out.
“The Solder Billboard Project” has been shown at the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Toronto and France. The United States has been the only place where her work was removed for sensitivity reasons.
The exhibit was the center of unintentional controversy when billboards of the images were removed during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. CBS Outdoor, the company who chose to pull the billboards, felt the images could be taken out of context by passing motorists and seen as offensive to those in the military. In an e-mail to Opton, CBS Outdoor’s Jodi Senese, executive vice president of marketing, wrote, “We cannot post these as billboards. the images, as stand-alone highway or city billboards, appear to be deceased soldiers. The presentation in this manner could be perceived as being disrespectful to the men and women in our armed forces.”
Opton never intended to stir up controversy, but wanted to create intimate portraits of the soldiers, probing the viewer to think about the psychological struggles plaguing veterans as they return home.
“I wanted to take a vulnerable picture of the soldiers,” Opton said. “As a mother, I was interested in seeing them the same way I would have seen my own son.”
Opton will speak with the public about the images in the Pentagon Metro station March 12 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and in the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station March 13 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The pictures will then be displayed at the Farragut West, Gallery Place/Chinatown, L’Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Pentagon, and Rosslyn Metro stations until April 4.