World War I, memory and reenactment

Nostalgie de la boue” (Nostalgia for Mud)

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In the last days of the battle for Mosul, in July 207 in Iraq, I saw a young man helped by others to carry two large black plastic bags. He had crossed the frontline just a few minutes ago. In the background, the sound of airstrikes and combats was constant.

I approached him when he stopped to drink water in the midst of the rubble that once was one of the oldest city in the Middle East.

The stench coming out of the plastic bags was enough to suspect what he was carrying with him. “They are my mother and a father”, he said pointing the bags while holding a bottle water. “An airstrike killed them two days ago”. The unbearable heat had quickly decompose the bodies.

Before I could ask another question, he asked me, “Where are you from?” When I told him I was from Argentina, his face lit and smiling told me: “Batistuta!”, referring to Gabriel Batistuta, a famous football player of the 90s. Unfortunately for him, he had found one of the few Argentineans that is not passionately interested in football.

When I tried to move on with my questions about the life under ISIS and the war, he interrupted me again. “Ortega! Also very good”, this time reminding me of Ariel Ortega, another Argentina football star of my childhood.

The young man, who I could not get his name, clearly did not want to discuss the battle, ISIS nor his parents’ deaths. He preferred to talk about football, or anything, but not his current life.

A few hours later, I took the plane back to Paris, where I live.

As a correspondent in France I was also working on stories about the 100th anniversary of World War I.

For the past few months I had followed WWI reenactors all over France who were trying, they said, to safeguard the memory.

I found myself covering a real current war, and working on a story of the reenactment of an old one.

French WWI reenactors attempt to retake the same hill in Noyon (France) that was taken by real soldiers from their Germans enemies one hundred years before this reenactment in May 2018.

While the people involved in the first preferred not to talk about what they have just lived through, the reenactors would discuss at great length every single detail of the Great War.

How were the French, at least some, trying to remember a conflict that affected their great grands parents? How will the Iraqis remember the ISIS war in the future?

I decided to work on memory and conflict, following French reenactors during 2017 and 2018.

And I chose to do it mirroring their action. If they pretended to live like soldiers one hundred years ago, I would photograph them using a camera of WWI: the Kodak Vest Pocket, also known as “the soldier’s camera” because it was very popular with the fighters. A great part of the amateur archival we have of WWI was created with this camera.

See the images of Nostalgie de la boue.

Reenacting history teaches us more about our present than about the past. Reenactments are mirrors of our present doubts, desires, fears and frustrations.

There are some taboos when reconstructing memory.

It is acceptable to reenact battles, where groups of men fight each other, some pretending to be wounded, and others dead.

But it is not acceptable to redo all kinds of violent acts, at least not in France.

Once, in a battle reenactment outside the city of Meaux, I noticed several men were arguing with each other. When I approached to find out what was going on, one of them told me: “Some soldiers pretended to execute another who did not run as fast during the offensive”.

It is ok to redo battle, but not to executions. I found the same taboo in several reenactors group across France. The country was still traumatized by the soldiers who were executed to “set the example” during WWI. The wound had not healed yet and the collective memory could not accept it, at least in a visual way.

Also gender plays a role in reenactments. The vast majority of French reenactors are men. There are very few women, and the role they play are nurses, widows, wives, civilians. Any role except soldier.

“There were simply no women soldiers back in WWI”, said and old reenactor when I asked about the role of women. “We need to be historically rigorous”, he added conveniently forgetting that there were no 70 years old soldiers like him and most of the other reenactors. Historical accuracy is applied to gender but not to age.

Two nurses, a grandmother and her grandchild, walk around the battlefield looking for reenactors pretending to be wounded in Noyon, France, April 2018. Photo taken with the Kodak Vest Pocket, also known as “The Soldier’s Kodak”, a camera largely used by combatants during WWI. The Vest Pocket produced a great deal of the amateur archival images of the conflict we have today. The image is part of the series “Nostalgie de la boue” (Nostalgia for Mud), a work in progress about memory a century after the end of the Great War.
Two nurses, a grandmother and her grandchild, walk around the battlefield looking for reenactors pretending to be wounded in Noyon, France, April 2018.

On another note, we learn that reenactments fill a social void. “It gives me something to do during the weekends,” told me Quentin, a young French man. The reconstruction of history is a hobby that builds a sense of community among history lovers or militaria collectors.

When faced with an uncertain future and a confusing present, the past can work as a refuge to revitalize in, where the stakes are straightforward. Playing the role of a past hero can provide meaning in our daily life.

Collective memory is a never-ending process of rewriting. In a century from now, who knows what will be reenacted?

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The Kodak Vest Pocket

“The real painter of today’s war, the most ferocious, is the Kodak”, wrote French journalist Jules Claretie in Le Figaro newspaper on April 29th 1905 foretelling the role of war photography.

Taking photos in the front was forbidden unless authorized by a commanding general. Yet, the small cameras, especially the Kodak Vest Pocket, found their way to front in the hands of soldiers.

The idea of photographing your view of the war was a marketing argument for resellers, in France and on the other side of the front line.

The soldiers’ photos created a massive archive of images of WWI, showing life in the trenches, distraction moments, devastated landscapes, dead bodies (especially of the enemy).

However, there are very little images of combats. Partially because of the cumbersome cameras used by the professional army photographers. And, even if the Vest Pocket was light and small, the danger was palpable. “The camera barely risen over the barricade, the eye in the viewfinder, a fast and deadly enemy bullet has laid down more than one reckless soldier to the bottom of the trench”, wrote Captain Henri Lafeuille.

The press would rarely publish images of gruesome battles like Verdun. Photography would only serve to uphold the patriotic ideal.

Some of the photos of Nostalgie de la boue represent the images of battles. They add fictional layer to the exercise of reconstructing collective memory.

In an online forum dedicated to WWI, Pages 14-18, a user, Stephan @gosto, pointed out that my photos would only add to the existing confusion with images of the conflict. In the future, the user said, people will mistake my photos as real images of WWI, just as they do “with the images of Poirier”.

The user was referring to the stills of the French film Verdun, visions d’histoire by Léon Poirier are often mistaken as real images of WWI. But the film was released ten years after the end of the war, in 1928. And the stills represents battles that were clearly impossible to photograph or film in the real war without assuring the death of the photographer or filmmaker.

In the same forum, user air339, took screenshots of my photos and drew rectangles in the areas where he/she found historical mistakes. Such as plastic trays, nurses nearby during an offensive, another nurse holding a digital camera, or a soldier participating in an attack with his backpack (apparently they left them behind when attacking).

The images of Nostalgie de la boue, like the historical reenactments they portray, are carved in the present. That is their sole authenticity.

The Kodak Vest Pocket allowed soldiers to create a personal photographic account of the conflict. Depending on the conditions and the skills of the photographer, the amateur archival we have today is of great quality. Both historically and technically speaking. Many amateur photos are sharp and well exposed.

However, our collective memory imagines that photos taken before say the 70s were blurred, badly exposed, unclear and grainy.

My Kodak Vest Pocket is 100 years old, so the camera sometimes malfunctions, for instance light leaks. These “errors” are perceived today as an “authentic” feel.

Using the Vest Pocket today is a an expensive task. The camera uses a 127 film format, developed by Kodak specifically for the Vest Pocket but discontinued in 1995. Today, the only place where this format is produced is in the island of Hokkaido, in the far north of Japan.

Their film has an ISO of 100 [in July 2018 they developed a new film with 400 ISO] so you need a decent amount of light and a steady hand, as the fastest shutter speed of the Vest Pocket is 1/50. The same issue was faced by British second lieutenant Robin Skeggs when, on Christmas day 1914, he tried to immortalize the moment when British and German troops gather in no man´s land to celebrate. In a letter addressed to his parents, as told in the book The Vest Pocket Kodak & the First World War by Jon Cooksey, Skeggs complaints of his inability to keep the camera still and not taking more images.

See the images of Nostalgie de la boue.

French reenactors standing as German WWI soldiers wait for a combat reenactment rehearsal in Noyon (France), May 2018. They will loose the battle, again and again.

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Nostalgie de la boue

Grâce à un appareil photo datant de la période de la Grande Guerre, Nostalgie de la boue explore la reconstitution de la mémoire collective française, un siècle après la fin de la Grande Guerre. Un passé idéalisé par certains, devenant parfois plus rassurant que le présent.

Pendant un an et demi, j’ai sillonné la France et ai photographié une quinzaine de reconstitutions de batailles 14-18. Les photos ont été prises avec un Kodak Vest Pocket, surnommé le « Kodak des soldats », l’un des appareils les plus utilisés par les combattants pendant la guerre. Malgré l’apparence ancienne des clichés, il s’en dégage une sensibilité contemporaine.

Les images de Nostalgie de la boue, tout comme les reconstitutions historiques qu’elles représentent, s’inscrivent dans le présent. Elles fonctionnent comme un miroir de nos interrogations et de nos doutes actuels. On y apprend finalement davantage du présent que du passé.  

Face à l’incertitude de l´avenir, le passé est un ressourcement, où les enjeux sont clairs. Investir la peau d’un héros du passé peut nous permettre de trouver du sens à notre vie quotidienne.

La convivialité de ces reconstitutions et leur aspect ludique créent aussi un lien entre des personnes d’horizon très divers.

La mémoire collective est un perpétuel exercice  de réécriture. Qui sait ce que l’on reconstituera dans un siècle ?

Nostalgie de la boue (Nostalgia por el barro)

“Nadie – fuera de cierto aventurero que soñó Wells- ha descubierto el arte de vivir en el futuro o en el pasado. No hay obra que no sea de su tiempo.” Jorge Luis Borges. Prólogo a Luna de enfrente.

Usando una cámara fotográfica de la Primera Guerra Mundial, el proyecto Nostalgie de la boue (Nostalgia por el barro) explora cómo los recreadores de batallas de la Gran Guerra dicen salvaguardar la memoria colectiva de Francia, un siglo después del fin del conflicto.

Ningún detalle de sus reconstrucciones es dejado al azar. Gracias a textos y fotos de la época recrean cada aspecto de la vida del soldado y de los combates.

¿Por qué esta búsqueda de la autenticidad como algo esencial para conservar la memoria? ¿Cómo fotografiar su quijotesca misión?

Dejé a un lado mi cámara digital y los retraté con una Kodak Vest Pocket de principios del siglo XX, también llamada “la Kodak de los soldados”, una de las cámaras más usadas durante la Primera Guerra Mundial. La Vest Pocket produjo una gran parte del archivo fotográfico amateur del conflicto, mostrando la vida en las trincheras, momentos de reposo, paisajes devastados, y cadáveres, sobre todo del enemigo.

Entre 2017 y 2018 seguí a varios grupos de reconstituyentes de guerra en verdaderos campos de batallas, como Noyon, Meaux, Verdún, Saint Mihiel, entre otros. Ahí recrean combates, a veces en la misma fecha que en la guerra original.

La memoria colectiva es un ejercicio de recreación sin fin.Las fotos de Nostalgie de la boue, como las reconstrucciones que representan, están talladas en nuestro presente. Esa es su única autenticidad.

Ir al portfolio de Nostalgie de la boue.

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