In October 2014, British troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan.
453 soldiers lost their lives during the thirteen-year campaign and over that time we, as a nation, became used to the faces of the fallen flashing up on our screens and in our newspapers; images of their coffins being carried from planes and through towns lined with mourners. For the vast majority of us, those faces will now have faded in our consciousness, but for the families and friends of those Fallen, there is no fading and no forgetting.
The work shown here, funded by the Arts Council and published in the Guardian Weekend , with interviews by Katy Regan represents a body of work produced as an exhibition and shown across the UK. The work received extensive exposure which can be seen in detail here. Highlights include BBC review by Phil Coombes, ITV.com review Scottish and Welsh ITV broadcasts and A rolling news feature on Forces TV.
“A few weeks after Gary’s body came back, I got his things in a box. That was really tough, because it smelt of him, it was him. He used to send for these ‘Aussie bum pants’ from Australia which were bright colours – typical of Gary because he was such an extrovert and that was very emotional because it was so Gary, you know, it was so him. “
”We haven’t taken many photographs since Cyrus was killed, because all we see, when we look at them, is the one face that isn’t there. That’s why, when we were approached about this project, we wanted to do it, because it conveyed exactly how we feel. There is this space all the time, and I feel it very physically, so to be able to show it in a photograph is really important.”
“I am sitting at home maybe eating my dinner and my daughter is under fire and you cant process that in your head that this wee girl that you brought up and protected all those years is out there fighting… in a compound under fire from the Taliban”
“He loved the film The Matrix and wanted a full-length leather coat but we couldn’t quite stretch to that- so we got him this! It used to make us laugh that he would walk around in it virtually all day long.”
“The battle doesn’t end when you get back from Afghanistan. People can never understand what you’ve been through.”
“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.”
“Brett was into anything if it was alive; he absolutely loved wildlife. I’ve never seen anybody pick up a bee and thank it for doing its work before.”
“When John was clearly unwell, I was saying you really need to go and see someone and he was saying ‘I don’t need no head doctor, what will people think? …. From the moment you enter the army you are bred to be a fighting machine, to show huge personal courage in the face of adversity. Those are all wonderful attributes but at the same time they can also be detrimental to the human psyche because the brain isn’t wired to cope with that amount of stress. ”
“One of the last things I said to him was, ‘a speeding fine’s come through in the post’. He was terrible for getting parking and speeding fines, never seemed to know how it worked.”
“I was on my knees in the car park, screaming. Then this bubble just formed around me, I picked myself up and walked back inside and said to the security guard, ‘I’ve just found out that my son has been killed in Afghanistan’, I need to go back into the building.”
“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 fifteen 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”
“When James was little, he liked to dress up as a super-hero. One of my most vivid memories is of James dressed as Batman, standing on a wall in the back garden. I was looking at him from the kitchen window and he was going ‘Mummy, I can fly!’ and I’m trying to say ‘no you can’t’ but then he did, and it was a trip to A&E again. There was nothing he wouldn’t attempt.”
“He told me he loved me in his third letter. I was reading it on a train to Belfast and I went ’yippee!’ and everyone on the train turned and looked and I was like ‘he loves me!’ it felt like I’d drunk a bottle of champagne – everything was just going pop.”
“…the regiment Welfare Officer had stayed on the barracks the night before and had looked over at my house with no lights on and thought, I’ve got to break that poor girl’s heart tomorrow.”
Having been exhibited at Four Corners Gallery in September The exhibition continues in Oriel Colwyn Gallery, North Wales, November 5th to December the 5th 2015 (with a special viewing arranged for Remembrance day) and FOTOPACE Gallery, fife Scotland, Monday 18th January – Saturday 27th February, 2016
Please check here for further news , and email Louis quail and Katy Regan if you are interested in showing the work or becoming a contributor.
Before They Were Fallen deals with remembrance. Through intimate photographs and powerful testimonies this project honours the sacrifice of the soldiers, but also that of those left behind to deal with their loss.
The central concept of the work is the recreation of a family snap. The pair of pictures; the original (before they were fallen) and the recreation, which shows a space where the soldier should be, together challenge the viewer to compare the past to the present and the reality of their absence.
This approach to the image alongside sensitive interviews of each participant by journalist and author Katy Regan, offers an alternative to traditional remembrance, remembering soldiers as individuals; somebody’s son, daughter, father, husband, brother or comrade.
A few participants were also invited to nominate several often ordinary objects that had particular resonance for them in connection to their ‘fallen’ loved ones. Using large format photography, the aim was to reveal the items afresh drawing attention to their now extraordinary significance as artefacts.
Traditional remembrance is inevitably narrow in its scope but broad in its brush; dealing as it does with the valour and courage of the fallen soldiers from several wars, and seeking to include the whole nation. Its success in creating this national platform is its weakness, in that the nature of the individual soldier and sacrifice of the families can sometimes be lost in the scale of the event.
In Before They Were Fallen, I wanted to confront the grief and sacrifice of the friends and families head on, and in doing so give them a voice and the opportunity to remember their fallen soldier in a public space, narrowing the distance between their intimate personal memories and our collective act of remembrance.
The final intention behind the work is to collate the material gathered for the project into an archive featuring the images and first person testimonies of each individual photographed. The hope was that it would be a fitting legacy to the fallen soldiers but also a manifestation of the emotional and physical impact felt by the families involved.
In creating this project I have considered the many First World War commemorations and exhibitions, each a reminder of the devastation of the Great War. I see the work as part of this tradition of documentation and reflection on war, which is essential in reducing the call to arms.
This project is dedicated to the 453 British soldiers and all those who lost their lives as a result of the war in Afghanistan; as well as the families and loved ones they left behind.