World War I, memory and reenactment

Nostalgie de la boue” (Nostalgia for Mud)

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“No one – apart from a certain adventurer dreamt by Wells – has discovered the art of living in the future or the past. There is no undertaking that doesn’t belong to its time.” Jorge Luis Borges. Prologue to Luna de enfrente.

Using a camera from World War I “Nostalgie de la boue” (Nostalgia for Mud), explores the way reenactors attempt to safeguard collective memory in France, a century after the end of the war.

Through studying old photos and documents, these men reenact the battles of the Great War with an obsession for detail that they pride themselves on.

Why is this quest for authenticity vital for the conservation of the collective memory? 

See the images of Nostalgie de la boue.

As a photographer, could I portray their quixotic quest ?

I put my digital camera to the side and I decided to photograph their reenactments 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.

Collective memory is a never ending exercise of recreation.

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

I followed different groups of French reenactors onto real historical battlegrounds, like Noyon, Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Meaux, to name but a few.

I would see them, the old and the young, running, hiding, running again, shouting, throwing themselves into the mud, shooting blanks at their fellow enemies. I would see the one who runs out of bullets, pretends to die or get wounded. And so he stays on the wet ground, getting his once pristine uniform all muddy, until the performance is finished.

The project, titled Nostalgie de la boue (Nostalgia for Mud), is a work in progress.

In their real lives, the grenadier is a bank employee, the officer a retired businessman, and the soldier a farmer from the south of France.

“We are not playing war”, says Daniel D. “It is a way to replace the testimony of the elderly who are now gone”.

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.

A hundred years after World War I

“I have been killed about ten times since I started doing this”, says reenactor Olivier Pierrard. “I have lived through beautiful deaths”.

Back home, in Argentina, is a tradition that every national day is celebrated in schools by allegorically reenacting the events and the myths of the birth of the nation.

Yet, WWI reenactors in France, whose territory witnessed gruesome battles, seek a faithful recreation of the events.

The Great War was documented through photos. A hundred years later these images are a source of inspiration for history lovers, enabling them to reenact battles, which in turn are photographed and documented.

I followed different groups of French reenactors onto real historical battlegrounds, like Noyon, Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Meaux, to name but a few.

I would see them, the old and the young, running, hiding, running again, shouting, throwing themselves into the mud, shooting blanks at their fellow enemies. I would see the one who runs out of bullets, pretending to be dead or wounded. And so he stays on the wet ground, getting his once pristine uniform all muddy, until the performance is finished.

The project, titled Nostalgie de la boue (Nostalgia for Mud), is a work in progress.

As a correspondant in France, I have been working on the Centenary of the Great War, for media in Latin America (La Nación, Argentina), and the Spanish speaking media in France, (Radio Francia International).

During the past two years (2016-2017), I also travelled five times to Iraq, to cover the fight against ISIS. This juxtaposition, moving between a present war waged in the Middle East and the commemoration of a century old conflict in France, intrigued me. How will the Iraqis remember? How are the French trying not to forget?

The missing images

“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 maybe the role of war photography.

The French army intensely photographed the conflict thanks to the Army´s Photographic Section, especially created during the war. 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 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.

The Vest Pocket

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 image wants to image a time when photos were blurred, badly exposed, unclear and grainy.

Time took its tolls on my century old Kodak Vest Pocket and the camera sometimes malfunctions, for instance light leaks. These “errors” are perceived today as an “authentic” feel of what our collective memory imagines were the images snapped back then.  

Using the Vest Pocket today is a (very) 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.

Made with 100 ISO, 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 liutenant 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.

During the past two years (2016-2017), I also travelled five times to Iraq, to cover the fight against ISIS. This juxtaposition, moving between a present war waged in the Middle East and the commemoration of a century old conflict in France, intrigued me. How will the Iraqis remember? How are the French trying not to forget?

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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