Human Face of War

formerly in Wild River Review, co-authored by Kimberly Nagy and Joy Stocke

You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home
You’d never think there was a bloody war on!…
yes, you would…why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft…they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns…

“Repression Of War Experience”
Siegfried Sassoon (Poet and Soldier, World War I)

In the cloudy maze of opinion, virulent debate, and public policy swirling around the term “American Troops,” it’s easy to forget the men and women – mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – who patrol the streets of Baghdad and Kandahar scouring SUVs for bombs, trading jokes and playing cards: some days bored; some days afraid.

How do we – no matter our political opinion – register and understand their daily reality?

And how can art provide a bridge between “us” and “them?”

Or in the words of Michael Fay, Chief Warrant Officer 2, United States Marine Corps and Combat Artist, “How do we get past the stereotypes?”

In companion exhibitions at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Michael Fay’s Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art From Afghanistan and Iraq, and photographer Suzanne Opton’s The Soldier, attempted to answer those questions.

Brian Peterson, Senior Curator at the Michener Museum, says that while the museum received proposals from many artists dealing with the war, Fay’s and Opton’s work shows unusual artistry and depth.

“So few artists find themselves in the position of Mike, who is a solider having served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Peterson. “Or Opton, who was very persistent, having, after much cajoling, received permission from the superiors at Fort Drum, New York to take soldiers’ pictures.

In Fire and Ice, Fay captures the slouching, half-asleep posture of the bored marine on sentry duty, or the intense concentration of the marine on a raid peering around a corner,” says Peterson.

“Opton, on the other hand, made 90 portraits of soldiers shortly after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “She uses a 4X5 view camera, which is a slow process, allowing her subjects time to forget the camera and sink into their feelings.”


In the post 9-11 climate and the beginning of the Afghanistan war, Opton kept thinking about the young people she knew who might volunteer to go to war. She looked closely at pictures of soldiers appearing in the news to seek clues as to who they really were.

“I remember that one of my son’s friends opted to enlist,” she says. “And I felt sorry for the mother.”

In her quest to make portraits of soldiers, Opton approached many bases and was repeatedly turned away.

“They asked, ‘Is this a political project?’” she says.

“I said, ‘No, this is art.’”

After repeated requests, Opton gained access to soldiers at Fort Drum Military Base (Home of the 10th Mountain Division) near the New York-Canada border. She began scheduling photo sessions that allowed little time for conversation with the soldiers.

“Still, I consider the process to be a collaboration,” she says. “I asked each soldier to lay his or her head on the table. From this vantage point the head becomes a single object. I meant the head to be isolated and vulnerable, and for the soldiers to forget that a camera was trained on them. Part of the challenge was to get the soldiers to trust me.”

Opton’s portraits embody the traditional photographic concept of capturing real people in real events. “I still believe in the power of that,” she says. “But I am not a photojournalist. What I like best is to apply some provocative structure to a real moment in time. Although the subjects are conscious of being looked at, they may be lost in thought by the time the exposure is made. I met one interesting-looking person after another. I thought of the everyman soldier. He or she could be from any war. Since they were posed in vulnerable positions, the implication of being shot down was not lost on these young men and women, but the pose is also a little like seeing someone opposite you with his head on the pillow.”

In many ways, Opton sees the soldiers as men and women who have put themselves beyond the grasp of most Americans. “The New York Subway Hero, Wesley Aufrey was a Marine,” she says. “He made a split-second decision to save a person who had fallen from the platform and had the guts to jump. That ability to think fast and save a life is marvelous, but heroism is not what I was seeking to portray at Fort Drum. I wanted to look in the face of a young person lost in thought.”

Opton says that the photos are from a woman’s point of view. “Maybe a mother’s point of view,” she says. “These men and women were apparently physically unharmed. In a studio situation, the figures are abstracted. The attitude is gentle, or it is frightening? I hate sappy images, but when these photos are life size, you want to hold the soldiers.”

So Opton went back to Fort Drum and invited wives and family members to be in pictures. “Wives and families are victims of war as well,” she says. “I asked the family members to surround and hold the soldiers, who were obviously oblivious to the touch. But maybe this is not so strange. Often, a soldier doesn’t talk about the war to his or her family. Maybe they’ve changed. That’s what the husband or wife fears.”

“I mean you go over there and the rules are completely different. You kill people and you see people you love get killed. You see horrible things and do horrible things and have horrible things done to you, and then you come back to this nice civilized life and you pause…How do you come to terms with it?

“I guess I want the public to see the impact of war on a young person’s face.”

Michael Fay

Imagine a man with a gun in one hand and a sketchpad in the other. Imagine that this man is one of a handful of gifted men and women who make up the Combat Arts Program of the United States Marines Corps., a program that began in World War II.

Michael Fay says he chose to join the Marines because of his dad. A gifted artist, Fay went on to study fine art in college, but says that art school didn’t give him enough structure.

“I was a white, middle class kid from Allentown, PA. I did my partying, wore the uniform – long hair and bellbottoms – just like everyone else. It didn’t add up to much, though. But, at boot camp I met someone I had never met before – myself. I learned what I was psychologically and physically capable of doing.”

Fay went to Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, all the while sketching images that conveyed stories of war.

“Being of a certain generation born in the fifties, I enjoyed listening to narratives,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re missing in the world now. I look at storytelling and there’s a philosophy behind it. And I ask myself, how do certain painters create a narrative?”

At an early age, Fay was attracted to the work of Howard Pyle who illustrated the adventures of Robin Hood and founded the Brandywine School and Artist Colony. But Fay’s role model for combat art is painter Winslow Homer, who was sent by Harper’s to cover the Civil War.

“Back then, there was a great need by the American public to know what their sons and fathers were experiencing,” says Fay. “It was time when people didn’t travel more than twenty miles from their homes. Pennsylvania was a country. Virginia was a country. To go from Pennsylvania to Virginia was like going to France. Homer forged what I think of as a distinctly American form of combat art. Obviously, there were photographers, but art is different than a photograph. Homer said, ‘What I’m doing is not photography but it’s filling a need.’”

Which is what Fay aims to do with his art. “I want it to be part of a narrative, not separate from what I and the world are experiencing,” he says. “Without images, how powerful would the story be? Having been to Iraq and Afghanistan, the world that I live in is the tactical world. It includes the day-to-day world of civilians doing something as simple as going to the market. That’s where the “strategic” is politics. When the enemy is bombing a market or a school, they know that strategically people are still going to buy food. Kids are still going to go to school. The insurgents know very well what they’re doing.”

So Fay looked to Homer and the way he connected the tactical world of the battlefield to art.

“Homer would do a quick sketch of a battle scene, send it to Harper’s, and they would flesh it out with etchers. He went out with a sniper and taught himself how to do an oil painting of that sniper in a tree. Then, he would paint guys just trying to warm themselves by a fire.”

Fay calls his art a form of slowed vision. And although he considers himself an inheritor of Homer, his process differs. “I’ve shot at people. I’ve sweated. I’ve been wounded. It’s not Hollywood. Soldiers love watching movies about war because in Hollywood, the rifle doesn’t overheat, and somehow that rifle has an unlimited amount of artillery. In reality, if you shot five bullets in a minute like they do in every movie, that barrel would be so hot it would burn your hand,. Not only that, it would turn red and translucent and you would see the bullets going down a barrel.”

Fay realizes that part of his job is to tell Americans about the people on the ground. “For soldiers, whether we’re on the left or right, we’ve been with Iraqis. We love them. They interact with us. Women, children, old men giving us candy. And at the end of the day, I want to draw a good portrait of them.”

Curator Peterson agrees. “Portraiture is a mysterious gift because you must project your own image on another person,” he says. “Fay is a highly skilled draftsman and he’s able to translate it into potent images of human beings. He doesn’t walk into the camp, paint a portrait, and leave. He embeds himself with the unit and gets to know those individuals. He learns their stories and quirks and translates that into art.”

Fay hopes that his work, though grounded in realism, is more poetry than prose, and more art than journalism.

“I don’t want my presence distilled away. I was there as a soldier in the heat, watchful and tense at the beginning of a dawn raid, surrounded by children at the edge of a soccer field littered with un-exploded mortar rounds, and bouncing down an Afghan highway pocked with shell holes and bordered by minefields. I have looked into the weary campfire-lit faces of my fellow Marines in unnamed places and felt time suspend itself, and in that moment found myself wondering whose faces are these?”