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Remembering those who fought

Phil Coomes | 11:36 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

Con Glanton

Photography and conflict have been curious bedfellows since Roger Fenton pointed his camera at the cannonballs lining the valleys of the Crimea back in 1855.

From that day forward photographs of ever increasing gore and shocking reality have attempted to explain war or provoke outrage. Yet as Don McCullin, one of the most highly regarded conflict photographers of the last century, noted recently whilst talking about his work: "What purpose did any of it actually serve?"

It poses the question, is there another way to capture the essence of conflict visually?

The first decade of the 21st Century has provided photographers with plenty of opportunities and many have continued to document conflict in more or less the traditional manner. Others have taken a new approach.

A few notable examples being Simon Norfolk's Chronotopia, Nina Berman's Purple Hearts and Ashley Gilbertson's The Shrine Down the Hall which ran earlier this year in the New York Times. All are shining examples of the power of photography, with Gilbertson's series channelling the unimaginable loss of a family into the wider picture.

But on the eve of the 65th anniversary of VE Day is there still a role for photography in picturing and understanding conflicts past?

The obvious place to turn is to the work of Steve Pyke whose pictures of veterans of World War I are now more important than ever as that generation passes on. I can remember being captivated on seeing his portraits at the old home of the Royal Photographic Society in Bath back in the mid 1990s for the first time. These pictures are strongly lit portraits of old men, old heroes, veterans of a conflict that my great-grandfather fought in.

The portraits by Steve bought home the passing of time and that despite this the experiences they shared in their youth shaped them forever. This was something they could not shake off, and indeed a subject many veterans would not discuss, at least until late into their lives.

Now that time is past, and we look to veterans of World War II, another generation that is ageing and needs to be recorded.

There are a number of photographers who have worked on this but I thought it worth highlighting the ongoing work of Damian Drohan who is documenting Irish veterans of that conflict using a multimedia approach. Damian is a photographer based in Cork who is currently completing a Masters in Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication.

He told me:

"At present I'm only documenting World War II veterans and specifically I'm interested in Irish veterans, as so much work has been done on British, American and other nationality veterans, but as yet the Irish have been relatively undocumented, photographically at least. It was a big deal here to join up. Ireland was neutral in World War II."

Despite that neutrality an estimated 70,000 citizens served in the British armed forces, together with 50,000 or so from Northern Ireland.

Damian's work uses photography as part of the whole. Many of the portraits are used as a way to draw the viewer in, to get them to engage with the ex-soldier and hear their story in their words. The portraits are not mute as Damian records their memories and runs these alongside the picture.

I asked Damian what the addition of the audio meant to him and how it affected the practicalities of the shoot. He said:

"I decided to use audio for a number of reasons. I believe that we react strongly to the spoken word, nuances in a person's voice. Simple, appropriate text can add a powerful extra dimension to images also, but I favour audio. When I started this project I always saw it as having an interactive quality, whether that would be in a physical space or online, I hadn't determined, but I wanted to give myself the option.
"I've also started using archival material, old photographs and pilot's log books and so on. Together with the audio I think it will help the audience to engage more with the work than if it were a traditional printed image and brief caption for each veteran."

This expansion of the format was inspired when Damian attended a multimedia workshop run by the duckrabbit team. His first foray into the expanded format is with Ted Jones, a Catalina pilot who has an interesting tale to tell.

Damian told me:

"There are a number of difficulties with this approach. From a practical viewpoint the sheer amount of equipment that I have to take with me to shoots can be a little overwhelming at times.
"The veterans are all aged from mid 1880s-early 90s and there's a real sense of time playing an important role. Because I decided from the outset to photograph each participant against a plain background, space can sometimes be an issue, although I have to say that all the people I've photographed have been very gracious about me re-arranging their furniture temporarily and I haven't broken any ornaments yet.
"I also decided at the outset that I also wanted the highest quality audio I could get, so I bring a portable recorder and external microphone, along with windshield and boom arm, it was difficult at first, especially as the mike needs to be placed really close for good quality, but once I got over my initial nervousness it didn't seem to bother the veterans either.
"One of the things I'm looking for in the interviews is to steer things away from just recording recollections of battle or horror, I'm far more interested in the little human moments, so that maybe the audience will react by saying 'I didn't know that' or 'I wasn't expecting that'.
"I guess what I'm trying to create is a multifaceted project which acts as a 'document' to the men and women from here who served, and secondly to create an 'experience' for the audience."

Where do we go from here? With more and more pictures being made every day it becomes harder to pick out those of importance, and that will vary depending on your point of view. But photography has the ability to slow us down and make us engage the grey matter, a way into a subject if you like.

The danger is that we get seduced by the pictures with instant grab appeal, shock value. Pictures that tell us more about the photographer than those depicted in the photograph abound, and while the photographer will always be present in every picture they take, there are ways to take a back seat and let the subject have a voice.

You can see more of Damian's work on his website here..

David Ferguson


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