Last night, I saw photographer Suzanne Opton speak about her work at the Henry Art Gallery. Soldier, her most well-known body of work, depicts young men who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The portraits are simple yet evocative, each showing only a head resting on the ground. In some images, the soldier confronts the camera. In others, he closes his eyes or looks away. But in each there is a haunting, ambiguous quality. Although we know that these soldiers are the survivors—those who returned—the images make us wonder: How alive are they? What have those eyes seen? What are those eyes hiding?
Opton spoke of the muteness of the images—the way the soldier just stares, abstracted from his body, no clues given by gesture or body language. She spoke of the trauma of war, the experiences that no outsider could possibly understand and that each soldier, on his own, struggles to confront. Here she quoted Dostoevsky:
“Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away.”
She spoke of the suggestiveness of photographs, their power to communicate those experiences that exist at the point where words fail. These photographs do not explain the experiences of the soldiers, but they convey the magnitude of these experiences and the haunting quiet that surrounds them. Opton explained that, on some level, she fears words—she fears that in repeating the stories of these soldiers, something disappears.
And yet she spoke and nothing disappeared. Sure, she told their stories, but more than anything else, she told her own story. Her voice often quivering slightly, she spoke of soldiers who had told her stories they had never even told their wives. She spoke of the way she became a vessel for their stories—the way she, as a stranger, could take on the weight of those stories.
By the end of the lecture, my heart ached—not with sadness or with grief, but with everything all at once. Afterwards, I pulled myself together and got my nerve up to go and talk to her. I asked her about her work in relation to that of Joseph Beuys and mentioned how my own photographs deal with personal traumas. And she reached out to me, handing me her card and telling me to send her my images—the very sort of openness and generosity that a student always hopes for, but never expects.
The next day—today—I went to see the physical work itself at Platform Gallery. The images were massive, beautifully printed, every last detail of the face intimately legible. I stood before one of the prints, as close as I could, and it felt so real, so tactile. On the young man’s face, there was a small scab so tangible that I felt I could just reach out and gently brush it away. But I couldn’t. An unspeakable divide separates us from these faces—faces whose surfaces are right before us, but that we cannot touch or feel, literally or figuratively.
After all is said and done, they are still there, just beyond the picture plane, while we are still here, standing before them. But something has changed. We have changed.
Want to read more of Amelia’s work? Here is her blog.