Visitors flying into the Twin Cities for the Republican National Convention were, up until last Friday, to be greeted by the gigantic face of a U.S. soldier as they departed the airport. New York–based artist Suzanne Opton photographed active-duty military personnel and arranged to have their faces appear on five billboards in Minneapolis and St. Paul. One, a 48-footer on Highway 5, was to be positioned at the intersection of Post Road just outside the international airport. But CBS Outdoor cancelled the contract, citing that they feared drivers might misinterpret their message.
In 2004 and 2005, Opton traveled to Fort Drum in her home state to photograph soldiers. “When I saw them on the news I couldn’t really see them,” she told me in a phone call today. “They’re so encumbered with gear you can’t see them.”
At the time, her son was of draft age, and getting to know these nine military volunteers got her thinking: If her son was in the military, how would it change his life?
The billboards, part of her “Soldiers Billboard Project,” show soldiers facing the viewer, with their heads positioned on a table, as if at rest. The pose suggests vulnerability, a trait in direct opposition to public perceptions of those in the armed forces. “I wanted to turn the idea of a soldier on its head and look at them as vulnerable.”
“I wanted to look in the face of a young person who has seen something that has marked their lives,” she said. “Whether or not you can see that in the photograph is another matter.”
Apparently CBS Outdoor execs saw something else. They contacted Opton and local sponsor Forecast Public Art and shared their concerns. First, the issue was that it wasn’t clear who paid for the ad or that it was art. One CBS account executive said that there’s paranoia about the RNC and that she wanted to make sure that the billboards had a clear sponsor logo and URL so that it wouldn’t be mistaken for “some weird subversive website,” Opton recalls.
Then, in an email to Opton, CBS Outdoor Executive Vice President of Marketing Jodi Senese, said that she was concerned 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.”
Opton, who assures that the soldiers are alive and well and gave consent to be part of the project, fielded queries and with Forecast came up with alternative versions of the ad, but CBS wouldn’t accept them.
Opton says the project is part of a larger one: After her Fort Drum series, she traveled to Jordan and began photographing Iraqis who had fled when war broke out in their homeland. The complete “Soldiers and Citizens” series carries a message that civilians and soldiers are both victims of war. But she insists that the project is “not an antiwar statement by any means.”
“Whether people are in favor of this war — or any war — or against it, know that people get killed and that war puts people in harm’s way,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your view of war is.”
A mother of one of the featured individuals concurs; her son — who, according to Opton’s site served in 353 days in Iraq and in 205 in Afghanistan — is shown in the first photo above. “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.” Gayanne Birkholz said in a statement. “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. I am disappointed that the billboards have been canceled, and strongly hope the company will reconsider.”
While the project won’t be seen here, elements of it are currently on view at art museums in Brooklyn and Austin, Tex. Soldiers and Citizens will be shown at St. Lawrence University next winter.