I could almost feel the ground sucking the happiness out of me. I was stood within a field of ghost white, among men who age would not weary and felt a rush of guilt and despair… and then a young girl’s laugh carried across the peace. It broke the melancholy, but a stab of irritation caught in my brain. I was in a cemetery of the brave and someone was laughing. It was two girls, sisters perhaps, who were playing hide and seek among the headstones. How dare they I first thought; how disrespectful. And then I realised something. Those two children running and having fun showed those men their ultimate sacrifice had been worthwhile, they had died so children could play and laugh and have fun. And that made me feel slightly better about where I was.
I was at the largest collection of fallen soldiers from the Commonwealth in the world – Tyne Cot cemetery in France. There are almost 12,000 men buried here from The First World War and rather than show the joy sapping ambiance of the scene, instead I chose to show the laugh of a small child. I thought it was quite poetic.
I was here in northern France and Belgium to see and photograph the remains of the century old conflict (century plus now). Much of what remains are the headstones and memorials to the fallen and missing, so they would, I knew, play a significant part of my photo essay. But I hoped to find other remnants too and I was not disappointed.
My journey started at the Canadian Memorial on Vimy Ridge. The huge ghost edifice stands guard over a part of the planet that is still so contaminated with century old ordnance that if you don’t stick to the path there is a very good chance you’ll be following Blackadder’s instructions for stepping on a mine: “throw yourself 200 ft in the air and scatter yourself over a wide area”. When the sign says stick to the path, it is not just a request.
As I walked around the huge and impressive memorial grounds I formed a way to photograph this landscape to portray what I felt about it. I often decide how I want my pictures to be portrayed when doing projects like this and it dictates the way I take a lot of the photographs.
I wanted the images, particularly of the cemeteries and monuments to have a painterly quality and to show an anchoring in the space rather than a time. These sites should be here forever to show the lives the young man gave up for everyone alive today. So to do that I fitted a 10 stop ND filter to my lens and mounted my camera on the sturdiest tripod I had and took long exposures.
The Vimy Ridge Canadian monument image was the first and although you cannot see them, it was crawling with visitors. The 30 second exposure meant anyone visible look like the ghosts of the soldiers the memorial honours. The monument solidified in the landscape.
In the same memorial park is Canadian Cemetery No.2, which contrary to its name is the last resting place of men from various places including the UK. It is a fine setting to rest in peace and in the gentle breeze I caught the unmoving stones while the tree’s rustling branches convey the moving on of time.
I then headed underground because the allied success at Vimy ridge was secured by a series of tunnels carved out of the hill and took the Canadian troops right up to the German lines. Some of the tunnels are preserved, but like in many tourist sites, I was not allowed a tripod and so ended up balancing my camera on a metal gate to take the shot of the preserved tunnel.
The area of Northern France and Belgium that saw the most intense fighting during the First World War is littered with cemeteries, large and small; shell and mine holes that will take hundreds of years to cover and the land is still leaching artefacts over a hundred years later. Walk by any field and it’s easy to pick up shrapnel fragments and occasionally you’ll pass what is known locally as iron harvest. We passed some on a country road while looking for a diminutive cemetery and piled out of the car. It was only after we started getting creative with our camera angles did I wonder if lying on the gravel next to unexploded, but live ordnance was a good idea, but I am typing this article with more than just one finger, so it all worked out.
We rounded the trip off with a visit to Ypres and its Menin Gate. The place is famous for its haunting Last post recital at 8pm every evening as the people of Belgium say thank you to the men, many of whom are just names on the gate’s walls, for helping to save their country.
I tried to convey the sheer size of the memorial and find the shot I have shown to be quite fitting. It simply shows two people searching for a name, one among the almost 54,000. It is hard to convery the sheer scale of the place, but it is not hard to feel its presence. As I stood there at a minute past eight in the evening with a tear running down my cheek as Buglers playing the Last Post I could feel the ground once again pulling the joy out of me as if the ground needed it more than I did.
Lest we forget.
This article was first published on Telephoto.com.