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March 24, 2005

Friday Forum: Faces of the Fallen

Facesfallen

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If you’ve been following this site for awhile, you know I often refer to it as a collaboration. 

Over the past few weeks, this has never been more true.  As BnN becomes better known, one thing it’s becoming known for is the depth and quality of the voices contributing to the conversation.  In this spirit, I think I’m going to step aside on Fridays and leave the BAG in the capable hands of you, my fellow interpreters. 

Just as challenging as the analysis of a news image is the process of selecting just the right one.  My week-end contribution will be the nomination of a visual that, I hope, will be worthy of your sizing and deconstruction. 

To provide you more context, here’s the caption the goes with our Friday shot:

Portrait of deceased Illinois Army National Guard member Spc. Jeremy L. Ridlen, of Clinton, Illinois, is part of a collection of portraits of more than 1,300 U.S. military men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan on display at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington Nation Cemetery, March 23, 2005. The exhibit, ‘Faces of the Fallen,’ contains work of nearly 200 artists who worked from pictures of the dead.

(I am pleased to use this image because the Faces of the Fallen project was originally inspired by newspaper photographs.  More information is available here, and you can see the on-line portrait gallery here.)

The BAG is now open.

(image: Reuters /unattributed in YahooNews)

  • http://greentuna.blogspot.com greentuna

    After having spent quite some time looking at the online gallery, I am struck by the fact that this particular featured portrait is so strikingly different. True, many of the portraits are stylized, but this one is so much more so. The three-dimensional quality of the work makes its presence much more pronounced. The hat and the gaunt expression strikes me as very World War II-like, as if this person had been in a concentration camp. The face is reminiscent of death mask portraiture, but it is the eyes that are the most striking to me. They are so enlarged and wide open. They don’t look straight ahead. Instead, they look beyond the viewer, perhaps to the horrors of war that he faced, but we did not. Very moving.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    “…featured portrait is so strikingly different
    yes, i’m sure that is one reason why the photographer chose this focus-center. otoh, the artist chose to leave in [left] the war-weary eye, staring out at US ~ the people who, after all, sacrificed these human beings for some reason ~ as well as the blank expression of the innocent naif [right] and a requisite number of detached -from- context reality “yearbook photos” hovering in the background ~ illustrating, perhaps reminding via irony how they lived rather than died.
    we could talk about the obvious death mask (unfortunately, we cannot dissect, de-construct and/or or re-edit, re-post images on BAGman’s fine, image-oriented website :)
    we must use words instead. what has always struck me, in these accountings, for what it’s worth ~ are these haunting, generic silhouette of death “place – holders”…
    …everyone, editors everywhere use them…
    …that we see lurking at various / random spots in this, “Faces of the Fallen”, as well as other homages.
    they (these nameless, faceless, mechanically re-produced shadows) are, if not how we may regard the “the fallen”, they are surely how the government sees them; ie., certainly not as individuals, rather ~ uniform figures, interchangeable parts, thus; sexless, breathless / dissociated from any one or thing, with no past history; nor, obviously any future destiny.
    they are entirely existential, and are only for this moment, without any other raison d’etre than to tell us: kilroy was here.
    a dios.

  • BM

    I don’t understand why they would do this in the first place. Why would they put up charicatures of dead soldiers? Like they are not even real.. what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan is just a something you see on TV, it’s not really happening.
    In any event, is this one missing a jaw? It’s completely detatched from reality.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    The faceless shadows remind me of the deaths we aren’t seeing – another story just yesterday of the Pentagon refusing to let a woman photograph her son in his coffin. Why are we still not allowed to see the fallen dead, the coffins, the reality of this tragic war?

  • mugatea

    I would like to think that this was created by someone who loved him, perhaps a child, not some random artist. Maybe this loved one made a plaster cast of Jeremy’s face before he left for WAR, that might explain the no jaw concerns.
    3D is something you can hold, touch. 2D is for the eyes.
    I saw the WW2 thing too. A WW2 movie or book might have been his motivation to become a soildier in the first place.
    Powerful stuff.
    Can you imagine the impact if they were all 3-D?
    Like they used to be?!

  • Anna

    It’s entirely possible that the artist in question wasn’t aware of the space restrictions and so made the relief too big. If that’s the case he chose to keep the head and headwear (which I assume tells us the dead man’s rank), and chop off the jaw. The result is an incredibly powerful portrait – the directional folds of the headwear give the head a forward movement, like it’s pushing through the frame, and the absence of mouth suggests that this man has been ’silenced’. The eyes somehow give the impression that he saw what was coming and was powerless to stop it.

  • aethorian

    The jawless face and frightened eyes mirror the multiple tragedies that all wars create. Not just the physical wounds that cause death and injury, but also the psychological and spiritual wounds inflicted on mind and soul.
    Losing a limb is traumatic enough, but society has some visual tolerance for it: the injury can be hidden under clothes or replaced with a lifelike prosthesis more acceptable to the eye. But our faces are the most personal images that we can present to the world. What happens when the faces of the living are damaged beyond recognition?
    The French—our allies in two World Wars—addressed these problems soon after World War I with the formation of Les Gueules Casseés (The Broken Faces), an association of war veterans who suffered severe facial wounds. The Harvard Design article Remembrance and Redemption describes:

    …the social bonding effected between disfigured men, men with “broken faces,” disabled soldiers with horrific casualties—what the French call “gueules cassées.” Situated on the borderland of private and public recollection, this type of memorial is characterized by poignant isolation. Those who had the war almost literally engraved upon their faces were marked and isolated by their wounds. Their road back to civilian life was so obstructed that many gave up entirely the struggle to demobilize, to return home and to resume their lives. Instead, they turned to each other, in lonely brotherhood. Doing so, they formed organizations that pressed for their rights and created places where they could go without embarrassment—without frightening others. Thus they constructed a social reality through which they could experience—remember—the simple dignities of daily life that they had lost and would never recover on their own. Kinship here meant survival in the most straightforward and mundane ways.

    The French veterans were joined by plastic surgeons, dentists, and psychiatrists who helped them recover physically and emotionally. The story of these men is presented online without blinking, although black & white photography softens the blow:

    NOTE: The following site contains very graphic images that may be NSFW. Flash/Shockwave plugins are required, and Google Language Tools can be used to translate the French text into workable English.
    Les Gueules casseés
    http://www.bium.univ-paris5.fr/1418/gener2.swf

    Google’s automatic, yet descriptive translation of the introductory page reads:

    “the most human Place of the man”, the face is at the same time an aesthetic and functional crossroads. All the attacks with the face determine serious infirmities. Disfigured, the casualty is then confronted with the experiment of the dismantling of his personality. He exposes himself thus to a double violence: the first, is related to the difficulty in recognizing a face which is not any more it his; the second proceeds of the modification of the relation to others, requiring the development of new rites of interaction.

    Similar American efforts to help disfigured veterans began about the same time and are described here.

  • aethorian

    Re: Anna’s comment,

    The eyes somehow give the impression that he saw what was coming and was powerless to stop it,

    we see exactly the same expression in the mother’s eyes in Death Reaches for a Child, drawn by the German Impressionist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Her youngest son, Peter, was killed in Belgium in 1914 when he was 19 years old, and had been at the front less than 10 days. She drew this 20 years later: perhaps she could see another coming cataclysm that she was once again powerless to stop.
    Her grandson Peter (named after his uncle), was killed in action in 1942 at the Russian Front.
    More of her powerful work is here, here, and here.

  • David

    It reminds me of the egyptian/roman sarcophagi at the met. the eyes are enlarged and magical. The eyes are a window to some spiritual place where this soul exists. But it doesn’t seem like he’s scared: he seems angry and accusatory. like he is blaming us for letting this happen to him. His jaw must have blown off and he can’t speak, but we understand him well from his eyes.

  • Mouse

    Can you imagine the impact if they were all 3-D?
    Like they used to be?!

    Sometimes, someone says something that makes me think: “wow, how obvious! Why didn’t I think of that?” This is one of those times: What a provocative question.
    My answer reveals my own cynicism: then they would be all the same and we wouldn’t see them for who they are; just as they seemed faceless in life. Bacause that’s what these artists are trying to do, isn’t it? Making sure that these men and women don’t remain faceless?
    And David, I echo your interpretation: that was my own reaction as well.

  • aethorian

    Jeremy Ridlen’s face is still among the living:

    Ridlen, of Clinton, graduated from Maroa-Forsyth High School in 1998 and had a twin brother serving in the same unit, family members said Monday. Ridlen enlisted in the military the same year and was assigned to the 1544th Transportation Company, based in Paris.
    Before the twin brothers left the Decatur area for their deployment to Iraq, the Rev. Marlin Jaynes of the Peoples Church of God in Decatur said they stood in a prayer circle of more than 100 people at the church where they had grown up and received a special blessing.

    For those who knew and loved him, would seeing his face—in the person of his twin Jason—be a blessing or a curse?
    By creating a likeness of Jeremy (and perhaps not a very good one at that), then showing it to the country and its image around the world, whose desires are we satisfying? Not Jeremy’s apparently:

    Jeremy Ridlen’s aunt, Greta Ridlen of Decatur, remembered Jeremy as a quiet kid who was very active with his church. She said the twin brothers were inseparable.
    “They’ve never been separated ever, even when they went into Iraq,” she said.
    Jaynes said Jeremy and Jason Ridlen played on the church softball team and traveled as far as Oklahoma City to play in tournaments. He said they were fun-loving and each had a good sense of humor, but also were aware of the seriousness of their deployment.
    “When we talked before they left, they said they did not want any publicity if anything happened to either of them,” Jaynes said. “That’s the type of young men they were.”

    By looking at his image, are we violating Jeremy’s privacy, and the privacy of his family? We are so accustomed to watching the news (but rarely participating in it) that we take for granted the images that we see. Does the desire of the public—that’s us, folks—to see “news” (whatever that is) outweigh the wishes of the individual?
    Do we need to get their permission first?

  • Erica A.

    Oh. My friend! What have they done to your face? If only they could see the tears falling from my eyes. To be immortalized in such a horrific fashion… If only they knew the man that I new and loved dearly. If they had touched your face, seen your smile, heard your laugh. Would they realy think of you like this? Would they truely believe: “The eyes are a window to some spiritual place where this soul exists. But it doesn’t seem like he’s scared: he seems angry and accusatory”. WOULD THEY. He is not just a dead soldier. He is not just a mourned loved one. HE is kindness. HE is heart and courage. HE is shy yet bold. HE is gentle yet so very strong. HE is love and loved. HE is friend and family. Everyone has the right to thier own oppinion; to that I whole heartedly believe. I myself am an artist and I see what many of you see. But what I cant see is Jeremy. Where is Jeremy? “The jawless face and frightened eyes mirror the multiple tragedies that all wars create. Not just the physical wounds that cause death and injury, but also the psychological and spiritual wounds inflicted on mind and soul”. This is very true in spirit. If I would have seen just the sculpture, I would have thought of it in much the same way. But the name carved on the front betrays the man.

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