Republicans offended by the faces of Soldiers?

Soldier Williams, University and Pascal, St. Paul. Photograph by Suzanne Opton.

Photographer Suzanne Opton and Curater Susan Reynolds are collaborators on a project that invloves putting photographs of soldiers on billboards and displaying them in various places around the country. They were due to be on display on five billboards in Minneapolis for about a month beginning on Monday, coinciding with the Republican Convention.

The contract however has been cancelled, with a Jodi Senese, executive vice-president of marketing for CBS Outdoor, the company who owns the advertising space saying:

"We understand that 'Soldier' represents a political art project, and that the individuals depicted are actual soldiers," "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."

Suzanne Opton replied that;

"They don't look dead,"

"It's like you see someone opposite of you with their head on the pillow. We see our lovers and our children in that pose. They look like the heads of fallen statues, and they afford the viewer an intimate look at the face of the young person whose life is at risk, and that was the point.

"When you see soldiers on the news you have no idea who they are. They're representing the United States and they have all that gear on. I wanted to get past all that".

I personally can see how the photographs may appear to reference the image of a deceased person lying on a slab in morgue, but the faces - though largely expressionless - appear full of vitality and certainly do not look dead to me. Only the The colours in each soldiers face may also be part of the problem. It brings to mind the criticism that was once levelled against the Impressionist painters at the end of the 19th Century. These artists chose to add vivid greens, yellows, purples blues and reds to their pallete when rendering skin tones. This brought accusations that the people in their paintings appeared corpse like. In fact, if you look closely at a persons skin, it is abound with colours from across the spectrum, even when that person is very much alive and a long way from becoming a bloated decomposed corpse.

The decision to cancel the display of these images is basically censorship and the timing means that political motivation cannot be discounted. Jodi Sense claims that the decision was based upon how the billboard sized images might be perceived by a passing motorist and not by the intentions of either Opton or Reynolds - somthing discussed here.

Billboard, I-690 Syracuse, April-May 2006
~ Photograph © Xie Jiankun.

This at least is consistant with the idea that advertising and propaganda is supposed to tell people how to think and what to do. However, these photographs are not claiming any specific agenda. There is no specific message attached to these images and as a result the viewer should be left to make up their own mind about what these images represent.

This decision has already been taken by CBS, who seem to be under the assumption that the image of a soldier that may have some connotation to that of a dead soldier is one that will cause offense. A rather presumptive and vague assumption and one which in my mind shows a greater lack of respect for the soldiers photographed for this project and for the armed forces in general than that which Opton and Reynolds are accused of.

These photographs and the manner in which they are displayed are most definitely political. That much is obvious. In a country where free speech is protected by law, it seems that sometimes you can't even pay to get your voice heard.

For full reporting of this story check out the Guardian and the Minnesota Independent.

See the project itself here.


Todd W. said...

"Basically censorship"? I don't think so. Unless the government is involved, the decision of a private business to control the messages it supports - paid or unpaid - isn't censorous, Assuming the refusal to display the work doesn't violate civil rights. THe photographers are free to go to another outdoor advertising vendor and obtain placement there.

You can disagree with the CBS Outdoor decision, but it's not censorship.

Stan B. said...

With more and more of the public sector of America being bought up by corporations each and every day, semantics is a poor excuse to not call it for what it truly is. Do you really think that the last eight years of right wing jingoism in this country courtesy of our present government played no part in their decision? Are you aware that several years ago, a photo exhibit at the Smithsonian was moved from its premier exhibition space to the... loading platform, when mentioned by Barbara Boxer in Congress as photographic proof that the Alaskan "wasteland" known as ANWR that oil corporations lusted for was actually a thriving wilderness (see below)? Are you seriously going to say that those corporations had nothing to do with ordering those politicos to do their bidding? Do you really think this illegal, immoral war was not about making money for... corporations? Do you remember when it was actually a crime in this country for the same owner to own TV stations, radio stations and newspapers? Or are you happy with FOX "News?" And yes, thank god, corporate influence and funding has nothing to do with the funding of public arts programs throughout the country. Jesus H. Christ let's be serious here! Follow the money...

Tom White said...

Censorship does not have to be carried out by a government body for it to qualify as such. Any individual or organisation can censor material, which basically means to remove, delete or prevent something from being shown, published, exhibited or distributed on the grounds that it may cause offence or harm. That is the definition of censorship and is exactly what has happened here.