Messages conveyed through bathroom graffiti exist in a world of their own, somewhere between the bounds of taste and repugnance, lacking the privacy of a diary but too ephemeral and obscure to truly be part of the public domain. They are personal statements momentarily pushed into view, yet destined for erasure. In part, this transience is what makes Steve Featherstone’s visual essay in the Walrus about graffiti in the latrines of U.S. soldiers serving in Kuwait and Afghanistan such an appealing project. His pictures capture something that those of us living stateside could never otherwise have seen. The scrawlings are both foreign and familiar: macho anger, smack-talk between soldiers and, above all, homesickness. The messages don’t come together to form some cohesive, revelatory narrative, as much as we might wish them to.
Featherstone doesn’t read too much into what’s written on the privy walls. As a whole, the messages serve as a window into one of the world’s shitholes, not a codex for understanding conflict in the Middle East or the meaning of warfare. They are what they are, “fleeting moment[s] in a six year-old war—nothing more. The words on these walls are snatches of an overheard and ongoing conversation that changes by the day, soldier’s talking to other soldiers at a time when soldiers are being asked to give more than they have been giving, which is already too much.”