Raw wounds

An exhibit displays the portraits of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s brought together mourning families, and starkly displayed loss.

I am working on a multimedia feature on the Faces of the Fallen exhibit at the gates of Arlington Cemetery outside of Washington D.C. The exhibit’s concept is a simple one: find photos of the first 1,300 U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, send those photos to 200 volunteer artists who produce portraits of the soldiers.

Producing someone’s portrait has long been considered the ultimate tribute, and that’s the idea behind the exhibit – paying tribute to soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I interviewed the chairwoman of the group in charge of the exhibit and three people who saw it and posted photos of it on Flickr. Two of the people I interviewed turned out to be extended family members of fallen soldiers.

The interviewees told me of mementos left behind next to portraits. In what I can only describe as poetic and beautiful irony, an exhibit honoring the dead has become very much alive and organic. It’s grown and changed since its opening in March 2005 as visitors have left notes, flowers, and personal effects – a house key left next to a portrait of a soldier forever inviting him home, numerous notes from families and strangers alike, a letter from a sister to a fallen brother expressing regret over their estrangement, a letter from a mother to her fallen son expressing her loss and grief.

One of the interviewees was an aunt who lost her young nephew. When she saw the exhibit, she was moved to leave a note at his portrait as well. I asked her to recall what she wrote. After some false starts, she began to remember and started to cry. It’s the first time she’d thought about what she wrote, she said. I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The exhibit has brought out something palpabale – the raw pain of loss – recent and growing with each death. And the exhibit has also answered a need – the strong, almost instinctual need to grieve collectively.

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