Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 30 May 2014

So many men, so beautiful: Mametz Wood, In Parenthesis and PTSD.

In the preface to his poem In Parenthesis about his experiences as a private during the Battle of the Somme, David Jones writes “...the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imagination of those who suffered it.”...“It was a place of enchantment.”

How strange you may think for a poet of the First World War to describe it as “a place of enchantment”. It does appear strange, but enchantment has a number of definitions and I'm sure David a Jones, as a poet, was more than aware of them. The root is from the Latin incantāre to sing a magic formula over. It, in essence cast a spell upon those involved, it “profoundly affected the imagination”. In extremis it caused what was then known as ’shell shock’, what today we would call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is that profound effect on the imagination that is the focus for my photographic series. It is a lens through which to see. It is a perspective or a vision of the landscape caused by the psychological damage of war.

Jones also described the title In Parenthesis as “the spaces between.” The war itself was of course a parenthetical episode in Jones’ life and the lives of all who fought, but also there is another reading of those ’spaces between’ which is more than apparent in his poetry and that is the space between imagination and reality or sanity and madness.

And so to midnight and into the ebb-time when the spirit slips lightly from sick men and when it's like no-mans-land between yesterday and tomorrow and material things are loosely integrated and barely tacked together.

My series Mametz Wood also questions the limits of photography, both in terms of how we can say things and the limitations of the visual narrative. I make no attempt to address the causes of the war in the work itself, simply the effect - the effect on individual human beings. I have no doubt in my mind that the root causes of the war were directly related to imperialism and that applies equally to the leaders of both sides. But I doubt that had much meaning to the foot soldiers involved. If there was ever a bigger picture it was soon lost amongst the horrors and struggles and bitter existence of those involved. I know photography can do narrative and political narrative, but equally we need to consider the form that this takes. Trying to convey the big picture in little pictures can at best seem remote and worst simplistic and patronising.

For me it's far better to try to convey what I know, what I can understand of the human scale of the suffering it caused. I'm no historian, yet you'd be quite right to question my insight into these particular themes. Like most of us my main experience of war has been from TV news or the work of war photographers, I've never been to a conflict zone - and have no desire to do so. Some years ago, however I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with associated depression. I won't go into the causes here, this isn't a place for self-revelation. Save to say it didn't come from one of the assumed ’normal’ causes of: war, natural disaster or terrorism etc. I do though feel I have some insight into the darkness (“the ebb time”), the continual anxiety that overwhelms everything and the broken understanding of the world (“that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imagination of those who suffered it..”). And perhaps, most pertinently and most frightening, the inability to escape one’s fears through the constant reliving of those experiences that got me there in the first place. (“A place of enchantment”).

It is in many ways “a place of enchantment” if only you assume it's an ’evil magic’ that sent you there. That's what it feels like; like you’ve suddenly been transported to a whole other world where the main preoccupation is staring into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable. (“His eyes set on the hollow night beyond.”). Actually ’imaginable’ is the wrong word, because you can't imagine it unless you've been there. It's far more terrible than our daily existences could ever have hinted.

So I have ’some’ insight into those effects on the minds of those involved. And I also have a greater appreciation for David Jones’ poem. It's there in the words for all to see if you open your imagination. He may have been invalided out with a leg injury after Mametz Wood, but the scars go deeper. He suffered two breakdowns, divorced and converted to Roman Catholicism. Not that I attribute the latter to ’madness’, just that it illustrates his search for ’another’ way. Perhaps most pertinently is that he didn't complete In Parenthesis until 1937 (sadly on the eve of another Great War), which illustrates the need for space that time gives us before we can confront these things properly.

I’m now preparing to complete the series, I have maybe 12 more images to add, in addition to a few that you’ve not yet seen. I hope this will give you a greater appreciation of the work as it is and as it proceeds to a close. I shan't apologise for the catharsis of my work, any more than David Jones should for his. I am, for the most part, better now, but I do know what Jones means when he says:
“When men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in this world.”

I have just added a new chapter containing five new images to the Mametz Wood website. Please take a look.

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