WASHINGTON, DC.- Controversial portraits of American soldiers between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were pulled from roadside billboards during the 2008 Republican National Convention because of their vivid content, are on view in the nation's capital through April 4. This is the final stop of a nearly two-year tour that has included Denver, St. Paul, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Columbus and Troy, NY.
In Washington, the posters are displayed in six Metrorail stations: Gallery Place/Chinatown, Farragut West, Metro, L'Enfant Plaza, Pentagon and Rosslyn. The close-up, larger-than-life images of the soldiers' faces by New York-based photographer Suzanne Opton are part of a series called The Soldier Billboard Project. The soldiers were photographed in complete repose with their eyes gazing vacantly. The stark yet elegant portraits offer viewers a serious and intimate look at returning troops.
By presenting these images as public art, "The Soldier Billboard Project is bringing to the open air in America a subtle reminder of the realities of war," said Opton. "The billboards ask viewers to think about soldiers, about the human cost of war and about the psychological struggles of veterans and their families, and then reach their own conclusions."
"Our purpose is to encourage dialogue about art and soldiering as well as the intersection between the two," adds curator Susan Reynolds. Viewers are encouraged to join the dialogue by visiting www.soldiersface.com, through Twitter@soldierBBP or by tweeting at hashtag #sbbp.
Opton has been photographing soldiers since 2004. The three images on display in Washington were taken in 2004-2005 at Fort Drum in upstate New York, with the permission of the soldiers and their commanders.
Opton's photographs of soldiers are included in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Library of Congress and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk.
In St. Paul, during the Republican Convention, billboard company CBS Outdoor said its decision to pull the photos was based on "how the image would be perceived by a motorist passing it in transit." In an email to Opton, CBS Outdoor Executive Vice President of Marketing Jodi Senese wrote, "The reason we have advised you that we cannot post these as billboards is that out-of-context (neither in a museum setting or website) 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."
"All of the soldiers are very much alive," Opton said at the time. "Far from being disrespectful, the images are vivid reminders of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers serving the country. The series simply shows them in a more vulnerable and personal pose than the public is accustomed to."
Describing the project, Opton said, "My son and his friends would have been of draft age, had there been a draft. Since the war began, I wondered about the young men and women who chose to serve and put their lives on the line. I wondered about what they would experience at war and how they would manage their transitions to civilian life. In making each portrait I wanted to look into the face of a young person who had seen something unforgettable. And I wanted to make that a serious and intimate view, the way I would look at my own son."
Gayanne Birkholz, the mother of one of the men who was photographed said, "Viewing these portraits of soldiers causes one to pause and think of the many sacrifices and efforts these men and women have experienced to protect us and defend this great country. The portraits are a stark reminder of the reality of it all." Birkholz added, "For me, looking at their faces serves also as a reminder to remember our service men and women and to thank them for all they do and have done."