Before They Were Fallen

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

  • Published

Before They Were Fallen, photographer Louis Quail's collaboration with journalist Katy Regan, explores loss and remembrance, combining portraits with personal stories of those who lost a loved one in the 13-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Quail recreates an existing family photograph, yet this new version is missing the person lost in the conflict.

Unusually for photography, which relies on the subject being present, here the power of the image comes from absence.

The space left in the picture echoes the space in the lives of those left behind.

The idea for the project came while Quail was in Libya looking at ways in which to tell the story of loss in the aftermath of war.

Before They Were Fallen is at Four Corners Gallery in London until 26 September before touring to the Oriel Colwyn Gallery and FOTOSPACE Gallery, Fife.

Nikki Scott, from Walpole St Andrews, Norfolk, is the widow of Cpl Lee Scott, 26, from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, whose vehicle was blown up.

Image source, Louis Quail

"The strangest thing was being told this horrendous thing had happened, that he wouldn't be coming home, and yet there was no evidence of Lee: no coffee cup from the morning, no toothbrush - it was like he was still on tour.

"Telling Kai, five at the time, was so hard. I sat him on the bed, I said, 'Daddy can't come home from Afghanistan now Kai, and he has gone to heaven.'

"Later that day... he was on the trampoline with Lee's mate Chris, when he asked, 'What's heaven?'

"We told him it was an amazing place and that Daddy had gone there on a rocket.

"A few weeks later, we were all packed, waiting for our visiting officer to take us to King's Lynn for the funeral, when I went into Kai's room, he said, 'I'm looking for my screwdriver.'

"I asked, 'What for?'

And he said, 'What if Daddy's rocket gets broken?'

"His funeral was packed. Kai and Brooke came in the car with me, Kai said, 'Why are all these people here?'

I said, 'Because Daddy's a hero.'

"Nine months after Lee died, I went on holiday to Turkey with the kids.

"One day, Kai was in the pool and was laughing.

"I thought how long it had been since I'd seen him laugh and wondered how many other kids who'd lost their daddies or loved ones in battle were out there who needed to smile again.

"This is where the idea for the charity Scotty's Little Soldiers came from."

Emma Betts, from Nottingham, is the sister of Pte James Prosser, 21, a tank driver in 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, who died as a result of an explosion in Helmand, in September 2009.

Image source, Louis Quail

"I'm so proud of James and yet angry too.

"I'm angry at the Army, angry at the politicians for sending them there.

"I miss my little brother: I just miss him being around.

"It was strange going back to that house in Caerphilly for the photo, because I hadn't been in 15 years and everything felt smaller and on the wall behind us are the two, white, football posts that were painted on, and that we used to play against when we were little.

"It made me nostalgic for that time, when life was simple.

"As I get older, I get sadder, I get angrier, I miss him more.

Caroline Munday from Coleshill, Warwickshire, is the mother of Pte James Munday, 21, from the Household Cavalry Regiment, killed driving a Jackal armoured vehicle, in Helmand, in October 2008.

Image source, Louis Quail

"James explained about his deployment, 'Mum, I have my brothers in the Army, we work in a chain.

"'If I don't go, there's a link missing.'

"We hugged and said we loved each other, and then he was gone.

"I'm just so glad we got to have that conversation.

"I was plunged into hell.

"I just wanted James - to smell him, touch him.

"The pain was unbearable.

"When his stuff came back in a cardboard box from the Army, his boots were on top.

"On one of them I noticed that the lace had broken and I imagined James touching those laces on the day he was killed, and I just sat there and sobbed."

Toni O'Donnell is the widow of Warrant Officer class 2 Gary 'Gaz' O'Donnell, 40, George Medal and bar, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, killed in 2008, in Helmand.

Image source, Louis Quail

"'I defuse bombs,' Gary told me when we first met in a pub in Leamington Spa[, Warwickshire,] in 1995, and I thought, 'Yeah, course you do.'

"I knew exactly what I was getting into when I married him in 1998, but he was always so confident.

"'Don't worry about me,' he'd say, 'I'll be fine.'

"He was Gary, larger than life, the big, brave lion.

"Gary was so tired.

"He never complained, but you could see it in his face.

"Sometimes he was out for hours on his own doing really technical work in the heat and in terrible conditions in Afghanistan, defusing roadside bombs, and it had aged him.

"I never want Gary forgotten - I want to talk about him.

"They're doing what's called a Heroes' Square at the [National Memorial] Arboretum in the next couple of years, and I've bought a paving stone, which will have his name on it.

"I've also got a poppy from the Field of Remembrance.

"I bought two - one for me and one for his mum - and gave it to her for Christmas.

"It feels like he's everywhere, which I like."