Yes, it’s an easy tearjerker, and the most cynical among us would say that it was conceived that way. But in “The Shrine Down the Hall, this weekend’s Times Magazine feature on the bedrooms left behind by kids who went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, had me from the first photo. What we see, in Ashley Gilbertson’s pictures, are bedrooms neatly maintained by parents whose children are never coming back. A lot of the kids are 19, 20, 21, and even though you know that means they’re young, it doesn’t hit you until you see the stuffed animals and bedsheets printed with NASCAR insignia. Some of them were in the sixth or seventh grade when this war started. My son’s first year has gone by in the blink of an eye; I’m sure a lot of these parents would say the same thing about their children’s lives, now cut short. Even if you believe (or once believed) that this war is necessary, it is a story that gives you permission to say “this has to end, and end soon.”
As an editor, I’d make only one criticism of the story. The photos are in black and white, which is stark but also makes them more arty and formal, sapping some of their humanity and poignancy. I craved the chance to see these rooms in color, to bring out the Americana: the faded colors of a cheap quilt that’s been laundered a hundred times, the tacky-in-a-good-way faux gold on those junior-varsity trophies. If anything could give these photos more power, it might have been that literal vividness.