University of Rochester

Photograph Reflects War, Value of Student Debate

April 2, 1999

The recent NATO bombings in Kosovo have brought back memories of the United States' involvement in the Persian Gulf War. The civilian cost of that 1991 conflict is recalled in a color photograph that was recently hung in Wilson Commons on the University of Rochester River Campus, and that emphasizes the role of the student union as a center for discussion and debate.

Taken by Roger Mertin, professor of art, the picture shows part of a chalk tally that was done by students to visualize the human cost of the Gulf War. Each mark represented an Iraqi life that was lost. In the photograph, an explanatory note reads: "Each slash has a face, a mother, a father, someone who misses them." The wall tally totaled 45,164 marks; eventually the number of Iraqi deaths totaled more than 100,000.

Mertin photographed the wall because he was intrigued by the vivid way students were communicating their understanding of the situation in the Gulf. The picture was featured in Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, a publication celebrating the centennial of special collections at the Library of Congress, which recently came out in CD-ROM version.

When George Morrison, associate director of student activities, saw the photograph in the book, he immediately realized another side to the image. "The photograph represents symbolically what a student union is all about, that it's a place where students can debate and discuss issues openly and freely," he said.

He contacted Mertin with his idea of enlarging and framing the photograph and hanging it in Wilson Commons. Mertin arranged for the blowup, which is now exhibited at the main entrance of the building. During the Gulf War, students voiced their opinions both for and against the war. "We're hoping the picture will encourage the debates in Wilson Commons to continue," said Morrison.

The photograph has already inspired comments, one from a student who disagreed with the anti-war stance expressed in the 1991 note accompanying the chalk marks.

"And that's OK," said Morrison, who pointed out that the mounting of the photograph was not meant to be a political statement. "Students should be participating in free and open discussions and educating themselves on the issues."