Illumination of Internal Pain

Krista Kelly


What do you see when you look into a soldiers eyes? Is it strength or weakness?

Pride or pain? Suzanne Opton explores this visual further in her exhibition of Many Wars at

The Texas State: Universities Galleries in Gallery [1]. Walking into the space you are

immediately confronted with a space that is being dominated by darkness, and the only

light source being across the room illuminating six prints of five men soldiers and one

woman soldier. What you are seeing is Suzanne Opton presenting the psychological effects

of war through her photography. Each subject is covered in a thick blanket that is mute or

neutral in color and has a solemn expression as well as gaze. Some of the soldiers seem to

be attempting to hide from the viewer, either through the use of the blanket or through

the redirecting of their gaze. By this redirection of the soldiers stare and physically

covering themselves it seems as if they are trying to hide some form of psychological pain,

further distancing themselves from society. Though each subject has a solemn expression,

there are a few of the subjects who are looking directly at the viewer, confronting them

with the emotion that exists within their eyes and in their body language. The

combination of well executed lighting in the space and artistic direction seen in the prints

offer commentary and a look into healing from their Many Wars.


It is the print of the woman soldier that Suzanne Opton has revealed as the only

photographic study of a female soldier (in this particular exhibition), titled with the

soldiers name Pia, whom has served in the War in Iraq. Pia is one of the few soldiers who

confronts you with direct eye contact. Placed in front of a light brown back drop, Pia has a

red-brown blanket, of similar tone to the backdrop, which is cloaked over her head and

around her shoulders making her further blend and disappear into the background. Her

hands slip through a small opening at the front, in a similar manner to that of the Virgin

Mary. Another similarity to Virgin Mary representations is her solemn, unmoving stare

and facial expression. One observing this print cannot help but see the pain in Pia’s eyes.

However, through this direct pain you can also get the sense of an exhausted power that

can seem Saint like existing within this female soldier. You can see that it is a strength and

pain that has developed through the internal processing and healing from the traumatic

stress that can only be an effect of serving in war. It is still hard not to notice that even

though she has a powerful force that exists in her confrontational stare, she still remains

physically concealed by the blanket blending into the background, which could be seen as

allusion to hiding her internal suffering.


Opton is able to provide enough visual information for you to be invited into the

work and to study the soldiers, while still withholding enough visual information to give

you enough mystery to keep you searching for an answer to what is being hidden.  These

pigmented photographic prints offer a hyper-realistic aesthetic effect that causes you to

feel as though you are looking at a documentary on a treatment unfolding. The mass size

of these prints allow for you to feel as if you are standing in front of the soldier further

consuming your gaze. The soldiers in these prints are set up in a similar manner to a still

frame that is in the midst of revealing traumatic events hidden within the mind of each of

the soldiers. Opton is presenting something more than what a documentary photo can

offer. As these photos make you think and attempt to decode what the soldier is thinking.


This context of concealing does not only exist within in the series of prints. As is

being seen through the soldier’s nervous body language, avoidant gaze and their use of a

blanket as a means to physically bury themselves, it is as if they were scared to reveal all of

themselves. Or is it just in the way Opton has blended the soldiers into the backdrop

through the similar colors that exist in the blankets. But this idea and feeling of hiding

also exists in the way the exhibit space is set up. The use of space works on its own as well

as with the artistic choices. There is a large shadow that envelops the space and falls onto

you as you enter through the doors of the gallery. Taking you off guard, Texas State’s

Interim Gallery Director, Chad Dawkins, along with the collaboration with Opton have

achieved this by allowing you to enter into a darkly lit space, which is a sensation that you

may not be accustom to seeing in everyday exhibit spaces, as it is most common for a

gallery to be well lit. Much like the psychological darkness that most aren’t accustom to

seeing or feeling in everyday life, that is a product of being and fighting in a war is found in

this exhibition.


This psychological obscurity is not only hidden within the exhibit space, but has

itself become a part of the study of the use of this darkness to hide. You could experience

this use of darkness and illumination in the space as if you are stepping into and even

being invited into the dark psyche of the subjects, becoming the interviewer of this

documentary, trying to learn about the process of healing from trauma. Opton’s realistic

photographic prints and her decisions in executing this exhibition of Many Wars, gives you

the chance to see a portrayal of the pain they experience, live with, and hide from every

day. The combination of the use of illumination and shadow, Suzanne Opton’s artistic

decisions successfully puts you in a position of an observer in the mind of these soldiers.

Opton allows you to both feel hidden within the space while still being exposed to pain,

imitating a feeling much like these soldiers experience every day. So I ask again, what do

you see? (1,033)