A decade ago, at the start of the war in Iraq, photographer Suzanne Opton began making portraits of soldiers. Instead of a man in uniform, Opton’s portraits capture the soldier’s head in a tight close-up, lying sideways on a plain dark surface. They feature soldiers in between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — the titles of the images list the length of their tours. Opton installed her portraits as billboards along a highway, beginning near Syracuse, New York, not far from Fort Drum, where she photographed her first subjects. The series of billboards, titled simply Soldier, have since traveled to nine cities around the country. (They are collected in the book Soldier, Many Wars.)
“My first reaction [to seeing the image] was that it almost looks like I’m not alive anymore,” recalls Craig Birkholz, one of the subjects. “My mom actually screamed when she opened the photo.”
“What I was looking to do,” Opton explains, “was look at the face of a young person who had seen something unforgettable. Some of them look serene, some of them look shell-shocked, some of them look far away. Some of them look troubled. They’re terribly vulnerable. You want to hold them.”
Produced by Sarah Lilley
(Originally aired: February 23, 2007)
UPDATE: After coming home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Craig Birkholz studied criminology and became a police officer in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. In March 2011, he was killed answering a domestic abuse call. The shooter, who was also a veteran, committed suicide during a confrontation with police.
Slideshow: Suzanne Opton’s Soldiers
Easy MuffinArtist: Amon TobinAlbum: BricolageLabel: Ninja Tune