From the horrors of the Flanders trenches to the modern-day front line, Sarah Freeman takes a look at the highlights of a new exhibition putting female war photographers in focus.
Photographer Alison Baskerville couldn’t be happier with the title of the new exhibition at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery. “Perfect, isn’t it?” she says, before adding, slightly tongue in cheek: “It speaks of the past, but also maybe of our future aspirations as women, although someone tells me they are actually necessary.”
The exhibition is called No Man’s Land and it’s both a celebration of three unsung women who captured the realities of life on the front line during the First World War and the work of three contemporary artists, including Baskerville, who served in the Armed Forces before having a radical career rethink.
“I signed up at 21 because I thought being in the RAF would allow me to travel and see the world. It did up to a point. I went on numerous tours, but it was while I was out in Iraq that things changed. We lost a lot of colleagues. I could not really find the words to express what had happened and I picked up my camera as a way of recording what was happening out there.
“What started as a hobby became an obsession and eventually I realised that it was what I wanted to do full time.”
Alison went on to complete a degree in photojournalism at the University of Westminster, but admits that her first time back on the front line with a camera rather than a gun in her hand felt like a relief.
“People expect me to have had some huge emotional response to the situation. I didn’t. All I felt was glad to no longer have the responsibility of being a combat troop.”
While focused on the job in hand, Alison says that it soon became clear that she was unlikely ever to be referred to as simply a war photographer. Instead, it always came with the prefix “female…”
“When I was in my combat role I never thought about the fact as I was a woman, but when I returned to the front line as a photographer it suddenly seemed to matter. I began working with Hilary Roberts, who is the curator of photography at the Imperial War Museum, and I remember saying: ‘I can’t believe that we have made so many advances over the decades and yet I am the first female war photographer’. She turned to me and said: ‘Oh no, you weren’t the first. There were women recording the First World War, it’s just that no one knows about them.
“When I was approached by Impressions Gallery about their exhibition I jumped at the chance. It was a way of putting their work in the spotlight and giving it a contemporary slant.”
Highlights of No Man’s Land include front-line images by nurses Mairi Chisholm and Florence Farmborough, some of which have never been displayed before. Chisholm, a keen motorcyclist, became an ambulance driver during the Great War and, along with her friend Elsie Knocker, she set up a first aid post on the front line, just yards away from the Belgian trenches.
“Using snapshot cameras, they recorded their intense life under fire,” says Impressions Gallery curator Pippa Oldfield. “The images of hers in the exhibition draw from Chisholm’s personal photo albums and what’s really striking is that even in the midst of great suffering, her vitality and humour shines through.
“While Mairi was out in Belgium, Florence Farmborough was on the border of Galicia, which is present-day Ukraine and Poland. She was a nurse, but she was also a keen amateur photographer and she documented her incredible experiences with the Russian Red Cross.
“At the time, the British press avoided use of explicit images of the war, for fear it would damage morale, so it’s really interesting to look at her work now, some of which is incredibly graphic. Farmborough didn’t shy away from the horrific consequences of war. She shows the corpses lying on the battlefield and her images of the Cossack soldiers, makeshift field tents and the Christmas being spent in an old dugout, offer rarely seen views of the Eastern Front before she fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.”
The third photographer in the trio is Olive Edis, who was the UK’s first official war photographer and it’s her work that has inspired Baskerville’s contribution to the exhibition.
“Olive was stationed in the battlefields of France and Flanders during the First World War, but she was also a professional portrait photographer and a really savvy businesswoman, who was a pioneer of autochrome, which was an early form of colour photography.
“I decide that as a nod to Edis I would produce a series of portraits of present-day women working in the British Army and working in collaboration with Ishan Siddiqui we have produced a series of digital autochromes.
“The original autochromes were small plates of glass and the images on them were never printed and never enlarged. Both through the subject matter of the photographs and the techniques we have used to display them, I wanted to show a sense of progress.
“The women I photographed come from all different sections of the British Army. Some were taken out in Afghanistan, others were out in a training camp in Canada or at the officer training academy at Sandhurst. Women are still very much the minority, but I wanted to show that their presence is felt across the Armed Forces.
“I remember one picture editor I worked with said that my portraits of soldiers looked too happy. This isn’t propaganda or a thinly veiled recruitment drive. Nothing could be further from my aim, but I do want to show that these women are tough, resilient – and yes – happy despite the difficulties they face every day.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Dawn Cole has been inspired the diary of her great-aunt, who was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in northern France. Words from the diary, which Cole discovered by chance in an old suitcase, have been weaved into images of lace-edged handkerchiefs to create photographic prints with hidden messages.
Then there is Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews which focuses on the secret history of British, French and Belgian troops her were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. Her large-scale colour photographs depict either the sites at which the soldiers were shot or held before their death and each one was taken during the same time of year and as close as possible to the precise time of day at which the execution took place.
“One hundred years on, Dawn’s images show places forever altered by the tragic events of the past,” adds Pippa. “Most people think of war photography as images of male soldiers made by photojournalists in the combat zone.
“However, through this exhibition we wanted to challenge that perception and show that there are many other ways to photograph war and really bring to the foreground different viewpoints of women whose work has historically been excluded from the conversation.”
That’s important for Alison too as she contemplates a return to the front line. “I would go back, but it would have to be under the right circumstances because I value my own safety. There is also the question of why you are doing it because mentally it’s not a good place to be.
“It may sound pessimistic, but there will always be war and it is possible to capture those who sign up for the armed forces in many different ways.”
No Man’s Land, Impressions Gallery, Bradford, to December 30. 01274 737843, impressions-gallery.com