Bearing Witness? Brian Harris’ Documentation of Commonwealth War Graves
As Broomberg & Chanarin have brilliantly shown with their work The day nobody died¹, photographing war these days does not necessarily involve photographing the actual fighting. One particular example of this kind of war photography is provided by Brian Harris, former staff photographer at both The Times and The Independent. He spent most of 2006 capturing military cemeteries and memorials across the world for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The project resulted in a publication called Remembered as well as various exhibitions, one of which took place at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has as its purpose looking after the various burial sites of Allied, and especially British forces. It has an enormous task on its hands in the form of over 23.000 locations in 150 different countries, representing the graves of 1.7 million soldiers. Established in 1917, its initial remit was limited to take care of the final resting places of the fallen soldiers of the First World War. It has later expanded to include the graves of soldiers having died in wars since. Considering the importance still attached to Armistice Day in the UK, and the scorn poured on those who do not wear poppies on their lapels each November, the project given to Harris was always going to receive much attention and support in the UK.
These war cemeteries have the potential to engage people with collective memory and history in an emotional and physical way. Unfortunately, these places do not educate people about the complexity of the historical events to which they refer to, whether it is the Great War, or indeed any war since then.
To be fair, Harris has done an admirable and thorough job. He has sensitively photographed the graves and the memorials. He has followed the lines of battle and travelled to remote resting places. He has brought variety to his pictures through use of light and composition of what often could have been similar scenes of row upon row of tombstones. But something interesting is happening here. Harris has only photographed these particular places, because they have become an index and a symbol for significant historical events. These war cemeteries have the potential to engage people with collective memory and history in an emotional and physical way. Unfortunately, these places do not educate people about the complexity of the historical events to which they refer to, whether it is the Great War, or indeed any war since then.
And then there is the other side of the coin. By using certain images and excluding others, a certain form of memory and history is created. It is worth citing Marita Sturken in this respect:
“The relationship of the camera image to memory and history […] is one of contradiction. On one hand, camera images can embody and create memories; on the other hand, they have the capacity, through the power of their presence, to obliterate other, unphotographed memories. As technologies of memory, they actively produce both memory and forgetting.”²
Harris therefore, by no fault of his own, compounds the two problems in this particular project. Unless one has already a thorough knowledge of the Great War and other wars since, the images of the graveyards do not contribute towards understanding the wars. By only photographing cemeteries of the Allied forces, the following questions almost beg to be asked: What about the burial sites of the opponents? Do they exist? Are they being documented and lovingly cared for? If not, why not? Even though the wars the images refer to have long passed since, Harris is confronted by similar problems as war photographers witnessing actual fighting: by being ’embedded’, he can only show a limited view of the conflict.
¹In June 2008 Broomberg & Chanarin travelled to Afghanistan to be embedded with the British Army. Instead of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper with them. Whenever an important event took place, they would unroll a section of the paper, expose it to the sun and put it away again.
² Sturken, Marita.
2002 Absent Images of Memory. Remembering and Reenacting the Japanese Internment. In: Fujitani, T., Geoffrey M. White and Lisa Yoneyama (eds.) Perilous Memories. The Asia Pacific War. Pp.: 33-50. Durham, Duke University Press.