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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

What happens to people who fight wars? Do they look different? Can you see it in their face when you look in their eyes? Photographer Suzanne Opton poses those questions in her new photos. She took pictures of soldiers who recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. The result is an exhibition that opens today in New York and you can see some of the photos on our Web site, NPR.org. Suzanne Opton says her project was inspired by photographs she took of people returning to their jobs near Ground Zero just after September 11th.

Ms. SUZANNE OPTON (Photographer): So that got me thinking about the changes that were going on and I read about soldiers and I read about how when they get out sometimes they don't have the services that they need. They have a difficult time readjusting to civilian life. I just wanted to see who these people were. So I called a number of bases — called and wrote to bases and everybody turned me down. But at Fort Drum they said is this a political project and I said no, it's portraits; it's art, just art. And they invited me and then they were wonderfully cooperative and helpful.

BRAND: And Fort Drum being in, in upstate New York.

Ms. OPTON: Upstate New York, right.

BRAND: Now these are very intimate photographs of, of the soldier's faces. How did you decide how to take the photos themselves?

Ms. OPTON: When I was invited up to Fort Drum I thought what I really wanted to do was to make a vulnerable picture of a soldier. And asking them to put their heads on the table is actually akin to something I had done for along time. I had photographed people sort of sleeping or dreaming or leaning towards the ground. And when I thought about what to do with the soldiers I thought, uh, that's where this pose belongs. So I thought that was the perfect way to look at soldier in a vulnerable fashion.

BRAND: And just to describe it for our listeners if they can't see the photos is you have soldiers whose—just, you just see the faces and the bit of their necks and their—they've put their faces on tables so their kind of—well they're, they're horizontal and the photos themselves I found them quite disturbing I guess is the word. Because a lot of them look—look like they could be corpses.

Ms. OPTON: It objectifies the head. It takes the head as an object and then within that objectification I work with a large format camera so I have to put people there, put their heads there and they have to hold still for quite a time while I fiddle with a camera. And if they move, then we have to start over again. So they're sort of left to their own devices because once they're there they have—they're stuck and it takes a while so their thoughts can wander and that's when I take the picture.

BRAND: What did they say to you when you asked them to put their heads on the table?

Ms. OPTON: They just did it. I didn't ask any questions. I had never been on a military base before and I was afraid of being asked to leave because it was an odd request.

BRAND: You—so because they're soldiers they just did it. They're used to taking orders?

Ms. OPTON: Well, the, the first handler said - I said to the first handler, I said well gee, everybody's putting their heads on the table for me and he said well, you ask a soldier to do something he takes it as an order. But I think somehow that my unspoken intention was not lost on them. Somebody asked me who would want to be photographed as if they are dead? And my answer to that is I guess they might because they must think about it all the time.

BRAND: And you say it was your unspoken intention — what was your unspoken intention?

Ms. OPTON: Well really, I'd say my intention was to see them as vulnerable. I think—I mean they are vulnerable. Soldiers are taught by the military to act and not be afraid and thank god they are taught that, but on the other hand, you know one false move you know and they can be stilled in an instant. So they are all very vulnerable and when we see them on the news with the gear and the— representing the soldier we don't get that sense of them. We don't really see who they are as individuals. I have a son who's — if there were a draft he's of draft age and I really wanted to look at them as I look at my own son. I wanted to see who they were. That's what this project was about.

BRAND: Some of the photos that are not the one's with the heads on the, on the table are interesting. You have some of them — other soldiers are cradling their heads and they're cradling them in, in a manner where it looks like they're tender on the one hand but on the other, it looks like they could just snap.

Ms. OPTON: Right, well that's guys. You know that wasn't my idea. If you ask a guy to put his hands on another guy's head he like tries to break his neck. You know, that's kind of where that came from. But, I went their to photograph wives and I asked the wives to put their hands on the soldier's heads and some of the soldiers came without wives and then I asked the soldiers to do that and I realized that you know that, the bond between soldiers — I mean they risk their lives for each other so that's a very close relationship. And so that's what I was trying to get at with those more tender photographs.

BRAND: Let's talk about the photos with the wives and the girlfriends and one photo, Soldier Wright, 366 days in Iraq. In that photo you have his head taking up most of the frame but then you see off to the side the eye and the forehead of I suppose his wife.

Ms. OPTON: That's right.

BRAND: And, and her hand over his shoulder.

Ms. OPTON: And his daughter's head.

BRAND: Oh I see and…

Ms. OPTON: That's his daughter's hair.

BRAND: And, and it just seems like — just fragments of them and then, and then, it just seemed to me he was—even though he had his family he seemed very much alone in that photo.

Ms. OPTON: Well I think that that's what happened. I didn't expect that but, I think that you know people say that soldiers don't talk about their war experience when they come home after — in civilian life they don't talk about it to anybody but their war buddies. And I imagine that, that's the case. That they're somewhat isolated from — from their families so that when I ask them to hold them and touch them they did have a bit of a far away look on their face. And really what I did was focus on the soldier so that you see just bits of the family.

BRAND: You are also going to be putting these photos on billboards I understand.

Ms. OPTON: I did put the photos on billboards. And a soldier — Birkholz is the one who was on the billboard — on most of the billboards and on the largest billboard. And when I — before I put those billboards up on Syracuse I was very concerned about, you know, what he would think about having his face huge on a billboard, because he didn't know about that at the time when I took the picture. And I had written to him and then I didn't hear back from him. And just before the billboard went up I heard from his mother, and his mother wrote to me and said that she wanted a picture of the billboard. And she said his year in Iraq and eight months in Afghanistan was very hard on him and his family and this picture portrayed his trials. And I thought that was great. I was so grateful to her and thought she was so brave to want a photo that — a photograph of her son which was not just the birthday picture, the happy pictures, but also one that reminded her of a difficult time in his life.

BRAND: Photographer Suzanne Opton. She has a new exhibition that opens today at the Peter Hay Halpert Gallery in New York City. It's an exhibition called Soldier. Suzanne Opton thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. OPTON: Thank you Madeleine.

BRAND: And again, to see photos from that exhibition go to our website, NPR dot org.

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BRAND: Stay with us NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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