Remembering those not photographed

Nov 11, 2021

I couldn’t help but notice fewer poppies pinned on clothing in London for this Armistice (or Remembrance) Day than in recent years. Most that I have seen are manufactured pieces, purchased from shops rather than the plastic and paper ones distributed by veterans. Admittedly, I am without one this year. I’m certain many of you would agree that the display of this symbol is not the only means of remembrance. While I am of the generation in the very privileged position of not having a direct loss from war to reflect on, many of the images that have found their way into my collection do in one way or another connect with conflict. A few of them haunt me. 

The images I have previously selected to mark this date have been of the service personnel involved in war. This year I have selected an image void of people. It is the lack of people in this image that troubles me.

Photographs of the past are often like reading a random page torn from a novel. The words on that page would be enough to establish a situation, a mood, perhaps a character, but not enough to tell the story. It is this ambiguity of reality that fascinates me about photography. The light and shadow captured in the photograph undeniably existed at some point in time. But what the physical make up of the objects in the photograph are, is less certain. This could be a photograph of a Hollywood film set, or a detailed miniature, as much a photograph of a moment in France from the Second World War. However, I do not believe this small unmarked snapshot is anything but what is depicted in the view.

Close the doors on the vehicles, and remove the debris, and this image would be exactly like millions of tourist sight-seeing photos. Likely, thousands of snapshots of identical views of this monument have been made over the years. But those #abandoned cars and belongings make this a very different snapshot. The photographer, most likely a soldier situated in a vehicle (or on horseback notice the head of a horse on the left edge), was interested in the monument they were passing by. It is framed to capture it in context with its surroundings. I don’t believe the photographer intentionally included the detritus in the foreground. He/she was accustomed to framing such a view in this way, and the abandoned objects just happened to be there. The photographer perhaps didn’t even notice them, numbed by war. 

The monument of the airplane is located in Caudebec-En-Caux, not far from the Normandy coast in #France. Built in the early 1930s, the monument memorialises a tragic 1928 aerial attempt to rescue a team of Italian arctic explorers stranded on the ice off the coast of Norway after their airship had crashed. Lost amongst the crew of the rescue attempt was famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the first to reach both the South and North Poles. 

This is one of those photographs that comes back to me again and again. It is a touristic sight-seeing photo most likely taken by a participant of war. Those old cars and mattresses belonged to someone. People don’t normally travel with mattresses, unless they are relocating. Why were the mattresses left behind at that spot, and the doors of the cars left flung open? What happened to these people, where are they? 

One aspect of war that we cannot forget, but are often peripheral in the films and photographs about conflict, are the regular people whose lives have been turned upside down by it. Those unseen in this photograph lead me to think of those largely unseen people in the rubber dinghies seen landing on the shores around Europe. Now perhaps more than ever we need to remember the unseen people of war.

Photo of Caudebec-en-Caux memorial

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