Vol. LXI, No. 30
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
When asked what drew her to Fort Drum in upstate New York to photograph 90 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division fresh from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, Suzanne Opton mentioned the obvious reason ("I'm a portrait photographer") before saying, "I have a son. He's 25. He could have been in the same situation if there'd been a draft."
Her extraordinary studies of soldiers are currently on display in "Soldier" (reviewed in this issue) at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown and will be there through October 21.
Ms. Opton said that sending a political message about the war was not among her motives. In her statement for the Michener exhibit, she writes, "I think of these images as a combination of my setting the stage, making the rules, and the soldiers bringing themselves to the game. These portraits embody the traditional photographic concept of capturing real events. I still believe in the power of that. But I am not a photojournalist."
In fact, she's become a photojournalist in spite of herself thanks to the turn events have taken. Ms. Opton's portrait of Army Spec. Alex Jimenez and his wife landed on the front pages of both the N.Y. Daily News and N.Y. Post, among numerous other media venues, because Jimenez was one of the two American soldiers who disappeared in Iraq on May 12.
What made the story both newsworthy and political was the status of the soldier's wife, Yaderlin Hiraldo Jimenez, who illegally entered the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in June 2001. Although the couple were married in 2004, she had been facing deportation until an immigration judge put a temporary stop to the proceedings after Mr. Jimenez was reported missing. Nevertheless, it took pressure from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), among others, to rectify what could have been one more embarrassment for the Bush administration. After Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agency would end the deportation case in a letter to Sen. Kerry ("the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families deserve our greatest respect"), the way was cleared and Ms. Jimenez received her green card and her permanent residency papers earlier this month.
"I hope it helped," said Ms. Opton of her portrait of husband and wife, one of the most poignant and appealing in the Michener exhibit. The Jimenez couple is actually the subject of two photographs, one in which the husband is facing the camera, with his wife's face next to his, her hands cradling his chin; this was the front page picture in circulation at the time the deportation threat was in the news. Perhaps even more powerful under the circumstances is the picture on display at the Michener, which shows her looking pensively over her husband's shoulder, the back of his head turned to the camera. The poses vary in most of the other portraits of soldiers' heads being held by loved ones or comrades, but these are the only two photos where the wife is featured full face and the only instance when the soldier's face is not seen at all. In the image where only the wife's face can be seen, she's holding on almost as if she knew her husband would soon be taken from her as if she sensed a special degree of vulnerability unfortunately borne out when he was captured by hostile forces more than a year later. (The status of the two men has recently been revised by the Pentagon from "whereabouts unknown" to "missing/captured.")
Ms. Opton was in Jordan photographing Iraqi refugees ("educated, middleclass people with nowhere to go") when she heard that Mr. Jimenez was one of the missing soldiers. Then, when the news of his wife's dilemma broke (what sent the government after Ms. Jimenez in the first place was that he'd requested a green card for her), the photographer sent her portrait of the couple to a distributor (Polaris Images). "I thought it might help because the pictures they usually run are unsympathetic, formal, in uniform," Ms. Opton said. "This was more personal, more human." She added that Ms. Jimenez was a "playful" subject and had enjoyed the process. According to news reports, Ms. Jimenez hopes to apply for citizenship and to attend college. Right now of course her great hope is for some good news about the fate of her husband.
Asked about how the soldiers reacted to the process of being posed, particularly since some of the poses look unorthodox and uncomfortable, Ms. Opton spoke of an inherent rapport between the photographer and the subject. "They got into it, they enjoyed it," she recalled. Although she began with straightforward shots of the soldiers standing, the poses on view in the Michener exhibit are far from straightforward. In the four largest pieces on display, where the soldiers are resting their heads on the top of a table (see the image accompanying this week's art review), the effect struck some viewers as morbid and, according to Ms. Opton, has led to some negative feedback on various blogs. Though the soldiers photographed have seen the results, they haven't responded. A Vietnam vet told her, "They can't talk about it. They're still in the middle of it."
"Some families didn't want to have anything to do with the project" she said. "But when they saw all the publicity banners and billboards in Buffalo and Syracuse, they changed their minds."
To see images of the "Soldier" billboards along 1-690 near Syracuse and on streets and neighborhoods in Buffalo, visit "public art" at suzanneopton.com, where you can also see samples of her other work, including some remarkable pictures of children, women, trees, and, of course, soldiers.The only way to appreciate the portraits in "Soldier," however, is to stand in front of them in the gallery. The larger pieces, especially, have to be seen in person.
Suzanne Opton's exhibit will be on view through October 21 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. The photographer will present a lecture at the museum on Tuesday, September 4, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call (215) 340-9800. Also on view for the same time period is "Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq" featuring Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay's drawings and watercolors, which I'll be writing about in the next issue.
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