Words such as "He is loved," "My dad watches over me," and "He was my only child," adorn the larger-than-life black-and-white images of family members and friends, each holding a portrait of their fallen service member in a Pentagon exhibit titled "We Will Tell Their Stories."
The exhibit is a memorial gallery that represents a cross-section of family and friends who were photographed by famed photographer Brian Bowen Smith. The moving exhibit that honors those left behind is displayed at Apex 1 and 2 on the third floor of the Pentagon.
Sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a 90,000-member international support group, "We Will Tell Their Stories" is a labor of love, said TAPS President Bonnie Carroll, who founded the organization following the 1992 death of her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an Army C-12 plane crash.
"This has been a dream to tell the story on behalf of the 90,000 families who are a part of TAPS, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost loved ones; to let our service members know … that they are never forgotten and that we do create a community and we do stand strong with each other," she said at today's gathering of those who participated in the exhibit's photography sessions with Smith.
Kim Joiner, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategic engagement, welcomed the group.
"This is one of the most impressive groups I've had the pleasure of meeting," she said. "It's a very moving experience for me, [and] it's a privilege for me to be here on behalf of the secretary of defense."
When Los Angeles photographer Smith first learned of the project, he said, "I was in 100% before I even knew what we were doing. Anything I could do to be involved, I was going to do."
Shot at the TAPS headquarters in Virginia, Smith said the project was not even work.
"It was joy. It was emotion to see someone smiling like that who's been through so much and happy to have their picture taken," he said.
"It was amazing to see the emotions they went through [at the shoots]," he said. "From nervous and giddy to finally realizing what they were doing and then becoming almost sad, then happy and then super proud. It was a journey."
The project exhausted Smith, who found himself going through the emotions of each of his subjects.
"I must have cried 10 times, but laughed 100. The plane ride home was humbling and made you reevaluate your own life," Smith said. "This is a big reminder for me that I'll never forget. It keeps me grounded. For me, it's great to be able to do something like this and spread [it] so more people are aware and understand what other people go through – how tough it is and what war really does to everyone."
Some shared stories with him, some didn't.
"This was a job I took very seriously, because you can't let anyone down. You can’t let anyone feel awkward. You can't let anyone feel like they didn't belong there. They're not used to being in front of a camera, especially in that situation," Smith reflected.
Of all the major magazine covers and celebrities he's photographed, he said, the "We Will Tell Their Stories" shoot was probably the biggest thing he's ever done. "You can't get a bigger stage than the Pentagon," he said.