Soldier, a series of large-scale color portraits by the photographer Suzanne Opton now on view at Sikemma Jenkins, adheres to a simple framework. It features close-ups of the faces of young soldiers who recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan, all of whom assume the same position before the camera: lying prone, one cheek resting on the ground, face turned toward the camera. While this pose certainly carries the morbid suggestion of a soldier who has been struck down, it also conveys the familiar intimacy of staring at the face of someone very close, as though you were in a shared bed.
The studio backdrop, which tightly frames the soldiers’ faces, strips away any contextual clues that might encourage a viewer to “place” the subjects. This ambiguity is at odds with much war photography, which tends to capture soldiers at a medium distance, situating them as mere players within a complex but defined landscape of conflict. Such conventions satisfy journalistic pretenses of objectivity as well as, perhaps, nationalistic desires to portray the army as strong, uniform, and cohesive. Opton’s alternative focus on the unique features of soldiers’ faces brings these conventions into high relief and calls them into question.
Opton’s large-format camera necessitated that each subject lie still for several minutes. Some close their eyes, some gaze directly at the camera, and others stare off into the distance, seemingly lost in thought. Each image invites us to wonder about the life and thoughts of the individual soldier, while prompting us to acknowledge our myriad projections about the lives of U.S. military personnel.
To receive permission for the series, Opton had to convince the staff of Fort Drum army base that the project would not have a political agenda. On the face of it, she remained within these parameters. The images take no stance on current military conflicts; their captions include only the last names of the soldiers portrayed and the number of days they have served at their respective posts. However, the existence of such close studies of individual soldiers does stand as a powerful counterpoint to Bush-era military mandates banning images of U.S. soldiers returning home in coffins. It is against this backdrop of tightly controlled and restrictive imaging of U.S. soldiers that Opton’s work gains potency as a kind of representational advocacy. The Soldier Billboard Project, a manifestation of this series that reproduced several of the portraits on billboards around the country, provoked a wide range of reactions and responses—testimony to the multivalence of the project. A search for the hashtag #soldierbbp produces comments ranging from praiseworthy and nationalistic to critical of the portraits’ composition and the morbid connotations that it carries.
Opton describes the works as “conceptual photos based on a documentary situation.” Her posing and direction of her subjects—presumably the conceptual gesture to which she refers—read as sincere, and the lack of overt political ideology enables the potential for a reflective encounter between viewer and subject. Finding such a balance between document and concept is a complex process for an artist, and in previous projects, Opton has navigated the issue with less success. Her series Many Wars, for example, depicted soldiers who had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder standing alone in front of a backdrop with blankets wrapped around their shoulders. The artist alludes to the subjects’ ailment in her statement, calling up with it the range of cultural narratives, stigma, and political controversy that surrounds mental illness in the United States. To invoke a phenomenon of such complexity through a prop as simple as a blanket comes off as heavy-handed and patronizingly sentimental. Instead of creating space for viewers to contemplate individuals, as the Soldier series does, Many Wars compels the featured soldiers to perform their mental illness according to an overly homogenizing and caricatured schema.
In view of the recent question of whether President Obama would return us to a combat role in Iraq nearly two and a half years after pulling out the last U.S. soldier, it becomes urgent that we recognize the systematized neglect that many soldiers endure as a result of the delays and dysfunction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Greater public awareness and consideration of the lives of soldiers could not be more essential at this time. Opton gets it right in keeping the mandate of her work simple. Stare into the face of an individual soldier. Ask yourself why this feels so unfamiliar.
Soldier runs through July 18 at Sikemma Jenkins Gallery.
 Paul Moakley, “Soldier Down: The Portraits of Suzanne Opton,” Time LightBox, Nov. 23, 2011. Web. June 18, 2014.