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The Shrine Down the Hall

March 19, 2010

Along with poets, artists, and maybe songwriters, the photographer has long carried the responsibility of portraying the images of war for those who stay at home. Most believe it was the pictures on nightly news programmes in the 1970s that convinced the US public that they could not longer  justify the continuation of the war in Viet Nam, given the price they were paying in young men’s lives. The power of photography was still being clearly illustrated in the previous US administration’s refusal to allow pictures of the return of military casualties from Iraq

However, there has always been discussion and debate on whether the brutality of war, directly pictured, is the most effective approach for those who seek to encourage thought and reflection in those on the home front.

In World War 1, the celebrated poets like Sassoon and Owen, frequently focused off centre to make their point, and though both were capable of graphic and disturbing front line imagery, poems like Owen’s ‘The Send Off” make their point without straying anywhere near the trenches. Similarly in the Great War, artists took a variety of angles, and perhaps Bairnsfather’s take on soldiers’ humour hit the rawest nerves back home.

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising, therefore, that  Ashley Gilbertson’s photographs in the New York Times magazine, carry such weight.  This 32 year old Australian photojournalist, with a portfolio of pictures from the war in Iraq, has a series entitled  The Shrine down the Hall which differs from his frontline work in that it records, in simple black and white, the bedrooms left behind by young American soldiers killed in action.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/03/21/magazine/20100321-soliders-bedrooms-slideshow.html?ref=magazine

Of course, the series is moving; it could scarcely be anything else. The name, age and hometown, as well as the location and cause of death, are the titles of each picture, and these rooms belong to boys no older than 22, and generally two or three years younger than that. But it’s the manner of their impact and the reason for the emotions evoked that bring cause for thought. And, like Owen’s soldiers on an English country platform, or Sassoon’s rubicund generals in a Pall Mall club, our eyes are not drawn to images of war, but rather to more oblique reminders of the lives left behind, the ordinary connectedness of those no longer with us.

As you would expect, there are odd corners of military memorabilia, Marines posters and the like, but it’s the unexpected soft toy or the pair of discarded trainers that really catch the eye, and then there are all the other thought provoking objects to be found in the room that reflects a life interrupted; objects that, in their tragic circumstances, bring on the awful awkwardness of familiarity.

What arguments were there over that wallpaper? How many school tests were prepared for at that desk? Which high school night out is commemorated by that solitary empty beer bottle? Was that cupboard chosen by parents or at the request of the child? Did the swaying of the trees in the garden cast scary shadows on the windows during teenage insomnia? Were any of those cds borrowed, never to be returned? For how long will this room be this way and how often will a slow sad figure gaze in the door, strain to hear a familiar laugh, or sit on an empty bed areaching for dreams that have gone?

We’ve been to those towns, passed through those ages, and grown up in those bedrooms.

And we can’t help thinking of those who’ve done the same.

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