In the back seat of a car, two little boys, one under and one over ten years old, and between them a smiling photographic cut-out— of their father, we are informed— in army battle dress (green/brown camouflage with a tan T-shirt).

At first, of course, we instinctively read the centre image as that of a person, not an image— an element of human perception on which everything here hinges. The disproportionately small size of the image of “daddy,” and the aid of a caption, points us to the heart of this family drama, in which the mother is absent from the frame but is the central figure in the accompanying narrative of the domestic “war at home.” This war front evidences no weapons of war but is militarized nonetheless, especially for those caught up in the folds and fringes of warrior culture.

In the photo the younger boy, on the left, is also in a camouflage T-shirt (green-khaki-white), but with a large, varsity-style number 33 on the front. The older boy, on the right, perhaps fourteen years old, wears a dark-blue T-shirt, too big for his thin frame; there is a prominent American flag blazoned on the shirtfront, its colours vivid against the shirt’s dark blue. This flag image is a larger version of the flag patch visible on the right shoulder of the father’s cut-out photo. These two flags provide the only blocks of red in the image. The older boy’s bright blue jeans are visible in the lower right.

[ms-protect-content id=”8224, 8225″]

The smaller boy is pressed flat against the seat by his seat belt. He wears an apprehensive look—reacting, we may guess, to the photographer and her camera looming up to make the photo. The older boy is looking down and toward the car’s centre, presumably as he aims his seat belt’s buckle toward its receptacle. Caught photographically in the act of doing so, his outstretched hand pulling the belt forward and down provides the only movement in the image toward the picture plane. Except for that, the three figures are pressed back against the lavender-gray car seats. His fist, clenched around the belt, seems oversize and tense, and his thin arm seems to have a muscular forearm. The grey seat belt at first sight seemed to me, by virtue of the angle of view, to be a blade in the boy’s hand, but both boys project degrees of vulnerability, while the father’s photo bears a relaxed and confident smile. The photo cuts the father’s picture off just above the waist, and we therefore do not see that the cut-out itself does in fact end at the waist. On a news website the photo’s credit line reads “AP/ Bangor Daily News, Bridget Brown.” (On another site, photobucket, it is credited to “momsquawk,” who has many other photos displayed.)

The angle of the photo slopes sharply downward from the upper right, (which cuts off the top of the older boy’s head) to the head of the cut-out of their father, and to the little boy pressed down near the lower left. Judging from the photos, the boys appear greatly to resemble their father, especially the older boy. All have similar noses and distinctive mouths, and all three figures seem to share a distinctive haircut style a bit reminiscent of a “Caesar cut.” The older boy and the father wear similar glasses, with big, blocky, unfashionable frames.

The car’s rear window, showing the suggestion of a green landscape, is photographically blown out, overexposed, isolating the characters in a shallow, claustrophobic space. The top of the front passenger seat’s headrest, barely visible in the lower left, adds to the spatial compression.

The photograph of the father is of a type now called a Flat Daddy, an image of a US soldier—but not apparently a dead or incapacitated one— deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan; it is a simulacrum meant to help families cope with absence. The Flat Daddies website, apparently associated with a printing company in Ohio, claims to have provided over 6,000 images, Flat Daddies and Flat Mommies (and sometimes even a sibling or a child), to families requesting them (formerly free, now costing $49.50). The Maine National Guard (of which Lt. Col. Holbrook is a member) was apparently the first service to provide them to any desiring family. Newspaper articles credit a ‘motivational speaker’ named Elaine Dumler with encouraging families to procure or produce them, after learning of a mother in South Dakota who in 2003 made one based on a children’s-book character named Flat Stanley.

A Bangor Daily News article of August 29, 2006, featuring the Holbrooks, comments: ‘Lt. Col. Randall Holbrook [Maine Army National Guard officer from Hermon, Maine, who was sent to Afghanistan in January with the 240th Engineer Group of Augusta] travels just about everywhere with his wife Mary and their two sons, Justin, 14, and Logan, 5.’ (In one of several stories featuring the photo, that in the Boston Globe a day later, Logan’s age is given as 3).

To observers writing comments on a variety of non-military blogs, Flat Daddies are humorous or repellent. The amusement and the repulsion reflect the uncanniness of the unabashedly primitive response we all share, of reacting to a photo of a person’s face as to a human presence, but with the luxury of emotional distance from the instrumental necessity felt by the Flat Daddy families. Of course, viewers of the photos and family shots of Flat Daddies have to distinguish between the photo of the living people and the photos of the photos, an extra hitch in our reception of the image.

Stories detailing Flat Daddies and their deployment in the domestic sphere are generally told from the point of view of the soldier’s wife, who talks about the need to console her very young children. (Some of the images, however, are produced by or for families with teenagers, or even for young wives.) Military families by and large are presented as enthusiastic (the exception was a woman who told a reporter that her small children were comforted more by talking about their absent father than by simply carrying around a smiling photo).

A number of photos of Flat Daddies in situ have been published, some more interesting than Bridget Brown’s photo of the Holbrooks—two of my favourites are a professional shot of a woman pushing a flimsy stroller with two children and a very large Flat Daddy image toward the camera and a “snapshot” of five army Flat Daddies lined up on a nondescript brown couch— and the Maine National Guard has a whole page of images at; but Brown’s photo has been reproduced more than the others. The confined flatness of the image, of its protagonists caught in the back seat, the photo’s casual lopsidedness although shot by a professional photographer, makes this an easily understood image. It is the family as a legacy of sons, stuck in the back seat but with their absent father, whose genealogical imprint they bear, whose small-town, working-class, or lower middle-class clothing has the casual militarist stamp pervasive in the United States these days and years, although Lt. Colonel Holbrook is, of course, a commissioned officer and commander, though of an engineer unit ((240th Engineer group) in a combat arm of the Maine Army National Guard. (They build roads and schools and provide infrastructural support for combat.) As recommended, the Holbrook Flat Daddy shows him in uniform, the uniform that is already foreshadowed by the clothing of the sons of this benignly smiling officer. The saturated light and dark blues and reds and whites of the older boy’s clothing stand in comparison to the muted tans and khakis of those of the younger boy and the Flat Daddy. The older boy’s body fills the frame from top to bottom, drawing the eye, and his strongly outstretched clenched fist, and the fact that his shoulder overlaps that of his father’s cutout image, projects him into the foreground, suggesting the future. But it is the Flat Daddy’s confident eyes, center frame, that lock with the viewer’s gaze. [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 11, 2008

Commissioned by Photoworks

Buy Photoworks Issue 11

Become a Photoworks Friend

Becoming a Photoworks Friend is the only way to receive a Photoworks Festival in a Box. Join now to get yours as well as a range of year round exclusive content, opportunities, invites and 20% off in our online shop.

Photoworks Opportunities

Keep up to date with our latest opportunities as well as ways to learn more about how to get involved with and support our work.

Sign up here

Become a Photoworks Friend

The only way to receive Annual 26 & get exclusive access to our events, content and a 20% shop discount