Marking TimeMarking Time comprises a series of 35 portraits of serving and ex-servicemen and women, combined with their memory of service life and an historic photograph. The portraits span a period of over 90 years, with the most senior sitter a WW1 veteran through to individuals who have more recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See exhibition in November’18)
Throughout my childhood, Great Uncle Clifford was a photograph.
He sat within a frame on the mantelpiece. Silent, absent and yet somehow always present. Many years later, I was to inherit six letters describing the last few hours of Clifford’s life as he led his men in an attack across No Man’s Land at night in October 1916.
Finally he had a voice – albeit not his own. His memory had been preserved and delivered by his friends and colleagues from the trenches. Handwritten in pencil, the letters spoke of the man that was, their love of him and the grief that they felt at his loss. Due to the aborted attack, Clifford’s body was never formally recovered from the battlefield.
Unsure quite how or why, and armed only with a camera, I set out to bring him home.
Curiously, I was to discover that he is still here.
Marking Time comprises a series of 35 portraits of serving and ex-servicemen and women, combined with their memory of service life and an historic photograph. The portraits span a period of over 90 years, with the most senior sitter a WW1 veteran through to individuals who have more recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The genesis of this two-year project centres on six letters that I inherited, regarding a relative killed in the trenches during the First World War. Thereby the project effectively starts with an inherited memory – a handful of letters and photographs from the front line. This link is continued through a series of portraits and memories stretching from 1918, through each subsequent decade, to the present day.
On one level the body of work simply offers a unique ‘snap shot’ of historical military events; seen and recorded by the individuals that experienced them first hand. The subjects, both male and female cross all walks of life, in terms of both service role and experience. They include a female from the WRAF who served in 1918, a prisoner of war from WWII, a pilot in the Falklands, a corporal in Iraq, a surgeon in Afghanistan through to the recently appointed, Chief of the Defence Staff.
The project is made up of a portrait of the now and a memory of the then. It explores the relationship between both private & public memory; and the influence it has in defining our identity, both as individuals and as a nation. Photographically, the work challenges the viewer to consider if ‘we are who we were’; and if memory, similar to the historical events themselves, will always have a sense of disconnect or separateness from the present.
The work addresses the process of grief and remembrance, and the reader’s experience is far from clear-cut when considering the private memory as it migrates to the public arena. The sitter’s personal testimonies challenge complacency, or any preconceived notions of how we believe they should feel, or remember events at which we were not present.
There is a sense that the memory and the subject in the portrait are still fluid; they are of course intrinsically linked, but neither element singularly, or as a combination, is in themselves a conclusion. Whether this sense of joining together, and concurrent disconnect, of both the portrait and their memory of war (and peacetime service), will prove comforting, or profoundly uncomfortable, will lie with the individual viewer.
I suspect they will experience both.
Michael C Hughes
All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes