CBS Outdoor Pull Suzanne Opton's "Soldier" Billboards During the Republican National Convention

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The Republican National Convention is still a handful of days away, but controversy is already being courted in Minneapolis-St. Paul over CBS Outdoor's decision to cancel its contract with artist Suzanne Opton due to the politically-sensitive nature of her photographs. Working with local organization Forecast Public Art and curator Susan Reynolds, Opton aimed to display several billboards depicting active-duty American soldiers, whom she photographed at Fort Drum, New York in 2004 and 2005. Like Rineke Dijkstra's series of photographs of young soldiers serving in the French Foreign Legion and Israeli Army, Opton's works offer empathetic portraits of her subjects, at a time when American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan elicits increasing national dissent. Her striking, monumental images find their subjects stripped of body armor and military dress and leaning their heads against a table. The photographs are vertically-scaled and cropped to only show each subject's head and neck, a visual decision Opton has suggested lends vulnerability to these unarmed soldiers, but which also, in light of past Al Qaeda videos, carries a far more disturbing undertone. On the project's website -- now the most significant record of the billboards -- Opton accompanies each of the nine photographs with the length of time served, by a given subject, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a sense, because of the ambivalent mix of emotions these images conjure, Opton's choice to exhibit them in equally ambivalent public spaces seemed very appropriate. Yet that ambiguity, the artist claimed, was precisely the cause of CBS Outdoor's concern. Worry about possible misinterpretation of the images -- and the lack of explicit indication that they were artworks, as opposed to advertisements -- contributed, she said, to the organization's decision to discontinue her contract. If nothing else, Opton's proposal will serve as an example of a thoughtful, timely coalescence of public and political art, and a reminder of the effect foreign policy continues to have on private enterprise. - Tyler Coburn


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