The Group Photograph

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I hope that the following thoughts and quotes will give an indication of why I am doing this project.

Beginning Thoughts

I really do wonder at the miracle of birth - that out of almost nothing grows a life. I am equally amazed that, in an instant, that life can disappear. I just can't accept that that living feeling thinking being can just vanish, taking all its life experience with it - I am looking for continuity, for immortality.

A photograph is a little bit of immortality. But it is an imperfect immortality - determined by the instant in time and the viewpoint of the photographer. So much is missing - we are forced to make a judgement at literally face value, assisted only by a few clues and our pre-conceptions. It is interesting to see how our observations compare to other evidence of the reality of people's lives - other photographs, film of them moving, words written by or about them, the sound of their voice on tape, things they touched, beliefs they had, and people they loved (including, of course, their descendants).

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Why This Photograph?

Any portrait could have been used as the starting point for this project, but this particular photograph is interesting for a number of reasons:
  1. It is a formal photograph of a group of people - you can get an idea of the characteristics of each individual, but there is an extra dimension because each person is subordinate to the group as a whole. Whatever the photographer did, he would not have been able to ensure a character likeness for all those pictured. What we see is each man's reaction to the occasion and to the photographer's instructions. I have already seen other photographs of some individuals which make them appear very different. Another area to consider is how the members of the group were connected to each other - how much more it was than just their being present together in front of a camera.

  2. The appearance of this group is very distinctive - they are all men, they are all wearing army uniform and giving an impression of unity, and, with a bit of background knowledge, it can be seen that they are First World War British Officers - all things that people are likely to have strong pre-conceptions about. And the chance is that those pre-conceptions will be wide of the mark - especially given that, one year earlier, most of these men were civilians and living lives far removed from any thoughts of war.

  3. A long time has passed since the photograph was taken - long enough that much history has occurred in-between-times, but not so long that lack of records would make research a non-starter. It will be interesting to see what connections exist between that time and this - the overall long-term view. And it intrigues me to think that, although these men would have been aware that this group photograph was being taken for posterity, they could never have envisaged that eight decades later posterity would subject this one photograph to such intensive research, or make it available to be viewed worldwide at the push of a button.

  4. The circumstances of the times during which the photograph was taken are exceptional - this group was thrown together by the extreme circumstances of the First World War. This watershed of modern history involved every household in the country and has had a profound influence on the way we live our lives today - yet current perceptions of the War are often ill-informed and shrouded in myth. In part, this is due to many people remaining silent about their experiences - the pain of their suffering and loss was too great. By approaching the War from this unusual angle, maybe new views will emerge. At the very least, this will be a memorial to the lives of these men.

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My Learning Journey

This whole project has been and continues to be a massive learning experience for me. I would be lying if I said that I found it easy. There are times when it is hard to avoid focusing on the terrible past, on death and tragedy and the loss of lives both young and old. And each time that I contact someone new, I worry. I worry that talk about the past will be upsetting or seen as intrusive, that I have come out of the blue knowing an enormous amount about their relative (often more than they do) and yet they know nothing about me and my motives. With each contact I have to build trust, and sometimes I am not helped in this by my own internal questioning of the why and how of this project.

But through it all, I have found that my worries and fears are often not realised. Many times, in fact, I have been inspired by the kindness and interest shown by the people I have contacted (and by the people who have contacted me out of the blue having read an article or seen my website). And I am spurred on by the thought that I am going to learn more than just a collection of dry facts and dates. It seems to me that this project is meant to lead me somewhere I did not envisage in the beginning. Every now and then I get an insight that there is something ineffable connecting all this together. It is still far from obvious to me what this something is, but I want to be there to see the mist finally clear - that is what keeps me going.

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A Picture of Men in a War

I was in a pub
There was a picture of men in a war
I thought about the picture
I did nothing

I went to the museum
There were moving pictures of men in a war
I read about war
I looked at my family

I saw my great-grandfather
In a picture of men in a war
I read about the tears in his eyes
I felt tears in my eyes

And now I search
That picture of men in a war
I see today and yesterday
I cannot forget

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These are posted above my computer keyboard:
  • Henrik Ibsen:

  • "The ghosts of our ancestors walk in all of us"

  • T. S. Eliot:

  • "Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past"

  • Eric Hobsbawm:

  • "The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millennium than ever before."

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