Photographs and shrines
I was taken by today’s NYT Magazine feature, The Shrine Down the Hall, in which Ashley Gilbertson offers a series of simple, black-and-white photographs of the bedrooms of American soldiers, killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is something haunting in these pictures. It’s not just that the bedroom is an intimate space, in which we find personal tokens of the deceased. It’s that the series highlights the youth of the casualties. When we are older, our abandoned spaces are taken over by others, and the evidence of our lives is eventually erased. It’s only when we’re young that our parents preserve our bedrooms for us.
And those bedrooms are filled with tokens of youth: teddy bears, a baseball bat, baseball mitts, swimsuit posters, girlish knick-knacks, Little League trophies. Coonskin caps. In one room, the blankets are turned back, as if Nils Thompson will soon be returning, although he was shot by a sniper in Mosul five years ago. Someone still waters Jennifer Parcell’s plants, and keeps fresh flowers on her bedside table.
And there are photographs: of childhood sports teams, brothers, sisters, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, and squad mates. Most of these photos we can barely see, but we know what they are, because we know what they’re for.
Photographs have a dreadful permanence. Polaroids and early colour prints may fade and shift to orange, but properly made black and white prints will persist for a century or more. Panoramic regimental photographs shot in 1940 hang in every Legion branch, their rows of anonymous subjects now all dead, and recognized by no one. It is impossible to look at these things without feeling a sense of one’s own mortality.
And it is impossible to look at Gilbertson’s photos without feeling a terrible sense of how fragile our lives can be, how susceptible to sudden violence or to random accident. Our family photos reassure us by giving absent loved ones a permanent presence. Gilbertson’s are unsettling, in the way they render absence permanent.