September 29, 2011

The Face(s) of War

Chiris Keelty - Vietnam  (Photo by Suzanne Opton)

Perhaps the most important decision that citizens of a democratic polity are called upon to make concern whether or not to go to war.  The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of such citizens have no direct or immediate knowledge of war.  And so what we know comes from representations of one sort or another – news reports, novels, film, and, of course, photography.  Such representations are always once removed, and equally complicated by reports of those who have been to war that no representation—however real, however verisimilar—is ever fully adequate to the task of helping one to know what it is like to be “in harm’s war.”

War photography faces the challenge of representation as much or not more than verbal or fictional representations if only because it is saddled with the mistaken assumption that it is somehow wholly objective.  But of course we know that that is not the case.  Notwithstanding the fact that we can conclude that the thing photographed was actually there (and ignoring the opportunities made available by the dark room or photoshop),  photographers choose what to include in the frame and what to exclude.  What angle to shoot from.  What speed to shoot at.  What light to employ.  What to keep in focus and what to obscure.  And so on.  In short, the photographer’s craft is an art.  And at its best, it is an important and powerful public art that helps us to see and be seen as citizens.  And of course, the soldier or warrior is first and foremost a citizen.

Much of what we experience as war photography focuses attention on the manner in which war is fought.  And whether the photographs we see shows soldiers conducting military campaigns, interacting with local children in occupied territories, experiencing the boredom of war that punctuates the time between skirmishes, suffering from wounds or worse, or returning home to the hugs and relief of friends and families, the focus is always on what we might call “the conduct of war.” And because wars are typically fought in the name of collectivities the role of the individual is played down—not erased entirely, but nevertheless minimized, as such photographs tend to underscore the archetypal quality of the scenes displayed.  Individuals tend to stand in for something larger than themselves.  And yet for all of that, one of the genres of war photography continues to be the portrait. 

Soldier: Bruno - 355 Days in Iraq (Photo by Suzanne Opton)

The most common portraits of soldiers tend to be taken prior to battle and usually feature the soldier in full uniform.  This is of course a practice that is as old as the Civil War.  And whether taken by the military itself or by friends and family members, such portraits veil the identity of the individual beneath the uniform and mark the soldier first and foremost as a representative of the state.  In recent years a number of photographers have begun to challenge such work and in a way designed to remind us of the individuals doing the fighting.  Premiere amongst such work is the photography of Suzanne Opton.

In a series of projects beginning as early as 2003 Suzanne Opton has been photographing individual soldiers, emphasizing the artistic conventions of portraiture designed to help us engage and understand the individual qua individual.  And with stunning results. Taken “at home,” rather than on the war front, the soldiers she photographs are all out of uniform.  And thus there is a sense in which their status as “citizen” is accented, rather than their sense as warriors.  And yet they are unmistakably marked by their war experiences.  In one set of images, titled “Many Wars” she photographs veterans in treatment for combat trauma, but what marks the series is that they cut across every American war from World War II to the present.  Shrouded in cloth, and generally distinguished by age and the different wars in which they fought, they are nevertheless shown to be as one, even as they are portrayed as individuals—a paradox that underscores the in/visibility of war as it crosses generations (and more).

Suzanne Opton's Soldier Billboard Project
In one of her most recent works, titled “Soldiers” she photographs veterans returning from Iraq, by asking them to lie on the ground with their faces at rest, almost as if they were preparing to go to sleep.  The pose not only resists the typical conventions of portraiture (showing the individual sitting or standing up straight, shoulders back, emphasizing their strength and agency) but locates them in that liminal state between full and active consciousness and the dream world of sleep. In surely operates as a visual metaphor for the condition of such individuals.  There is also a gesture here to the “two thousand yard stare” that recurs as a convention of war photography, made all the more haunting by the fact that these individuals are out of uniform and thus that much closer to us as citizens on the homefront.   These photographs were part of a provocative and controversial “Billboard” campaign which, in their own way, demonstrate the sense in which the soldier has become more or less invisible in the contemporary landscape.

Whatever one makes of Opton’s work, it is clear that she is challenging us to think about the representation of war, and more, the implications for how we experience and engage such representations as we go about our daily lives.  She will be speaking on campus on Monday, October 10, 2010.  The title of her presentation is “Many Wars: The Difficulty of Home” and it will take place in Fine Arts 015 from 7:00-8:30 p.m.  The public is welcome (and encouraged) to attend.

John Louis Lucaites
Professor, Rhetoric and Public Culture
Department of Communication and Culture
IU College of Arts and Sciences

Professor Lucaites co-hosts the blog, which regularly discusses the visualization of war in contemporary photojournalistic practice.

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