Faces that bore witness

Brian David Stevens spent 10 years photographing veterans at the Cenotaph. As the portraits go on display for the very first time, he talks to Sarah Freeman about remembering a generation.

Forty of the anonymous portraits of veterans taken by Brian David Stephens during his ten year project will go on display at the Royal Armouries in Leeds from November 11.

For 10 years, Brian David Stevens took his place at the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph.

He was there to photograph veterans and the portraits have much in common. They are all black and white, each face fills the frame and, while all are anonymous, they each tell a story of sacrifice and quiet resilience.

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“I wanted this to be something quite different from many other photographic projects which focus on veterans,” says Brian of They That Are Left, which goes on display for the first time at the Royal Armouries in Leeds next week. “I didn’t want to name them and I didn’t want to identify which regiment they had served in or where they had been posted. There are no cap badges, no ribbons of medals and no hint of what military rank they were. All the pictures are lit with daylight and my assistant holds a piece of black velvet behind the subject. It is a very simple set up and really allows the viewer to concentrate on the face, without any distractions.

Forty of the anonymous portraits of veterans taken by Brian David Stephens during his ten year project will go on display at the Royal Armouries in Leeds from November 11.

“For me all soldiers are equal and someone who kept the tanks or the planes running is equally as heroic as someone who survived a prisoner of war camp. War is a great leveller and that was the aim of this project. I wanted to show that all veterans are equal and one deserves our thanks just as much as another.”

Brian began his project in 2002 and initially had no intention to make it span a decade. However, by 2012 he not only had 100 moving portraits, but he had 
also witnessed the last Remembrance Sunday attended by a First World War veteran.

“The title of the exhibition was inspired by the line in Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen, which reads ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’,” says Brian. “The passing of time is a really important part of the project and while it was only a 10-day shoot because it was spread over a decade I felt it became something different, something more universal.

“As the years passed, the number of veterans from the First World War dwindled to nothing and the number from the Second World War steadily reduced, but their places have now been taken by other veterans from more recent conflicts. I predominantly focused on those older veterans, but not exclusively, because I wanted to show that the impact of war isn’t something which belongs to the past, rather that it’s something that will always be with us.”

Forty of the anonymous portraits of veterans taken by Brian David Stephens during his ten year project will go on display at the Royal Armouries in Leeds from November 11.

The exhibition will open after the museum’s Armistice Day service on Tuesday and forms part of a full programme of events commemorating the First and Second World Wars. Throughout the month, the museum will be screening an hour-long selection of First World War propaganda films from the Imperial War Museum’s archive and every day there will also be a series of talks on the Great War.

Tomorrow there will also be a performance of Only Water Between, a piece inspired by the love letters exchanged between a Doncaster couple during the Great War. Jack Adam was a teacher in Balby before he joined the 12th Battalion of the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) in March 1915. Initially he trained recruits, but having been promoted to colour sergeant major he went to France in January 1918 and wrote regularly to his wife and three children back home, talking of his hopes for the children and his frustration of being away from his loved ones.

In one he said: “I know a tender heart/I know two red lips/That wait for me,” but warned: “I did have hopes of being home by Easter but the German offensive having started, I’m afraid we shall be 
kept back. I shall be home for my birthday.”

Jack was cut down by machine gun bullets the day before he turned 36, but unaware his injuries were fatal, Gert kept writing letters, which were discovered as a full collection in a house in Oxfordshire in 2006.

“When you look at a war memorial all you see is a list of names,” says Brian. “There are no details and we never know who these people really were, but in many ways that makes their sacrifice all the more stark. I am looking forward to seeing the Cenotaph portraits hung together for the first time. Each veteran has a different story to tell, but together I hope they tell a bigger story about conflict, our reaction to it and the need to remember all those whose lives have been touched by it.”

• They That Are Left photographic exhibition runs to February 2015. 
There will be a free performance of Only Water Between at the museum on Sunday at 12.30pm and 2.30pm. www.royalarmouries.org