Chloe Dewe Matthews is a British documentary photographer whose work I came across online a few weeks ago. I took a particular interest in her Shot at Dawn series as she presents her subject matter of something that has happened in the past in the kind of way I would like to present my subejct matter of hauntings for my self directed assignment.
Shot at Dawn is a body of work consisting of twenty three images that show locations at which British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed between 1914 and 1918 for cowardice and desertion. The photographs were taken as close to the exact time of day and year as the actual executions in each location as possible, and as most executions took place at dawn this provided Dewe Matthews with the title of the series.
Due to the images being shot so early in the morning there is a really fitting eeriness given to the sites in the photographs which today look to be very ordinary unassuming places. There is a real potency to these landscape photographs in looking at these today forgotten sites as they raise awareness of a subject matter that is very often neglected when discussing the first world war. These hundreds of soldiers shot by their own side were often teenage volunteers who had signed up to fight in a war they really couldn’t have anticipated the severity of. These haunting photographs provide a moving memorial of the fate of these people.
Dewe Matthews puts us very much in her shoes as a photographer in arriving somewhere a hundred years after an event has happened. In witnessing the landscape that has witnessed this event we are able to see exactly what these soldiers saw the day of their execution. There is something incredibly moving about being able to put yourself in their shoes in this way, knowing that they were just young people who could no longer cope in one of the most horrific wars. To me this series seeks to give us a connection to an event that happened a century ago, to be aware of the relationship we have with our landscape and to not assume we have an innocence towards it.
This series also seeks to question the British national conscience in how we feel about how the British army chose to discipline soldiers in this way which has been rather ignored in contrast to what happened on the front lines. At the time of their execution these people were branded as degenerates who were best forgotten, and now there is a real feeling of unease in how death did not meet them abruptly on the battlefield and instead from the people leading them who were on their side. We are also now aware that at least some of the soldiers will have been suffering from mental illnesses caused by the warfare. Which there wasn’t recognition or understanding of at that time and that if they had acted like that today they would be treated very differently.
The captioning for this series I feel is what gives it such potency as these calm figureless landscape photographs are met with a chilling record of the location, time, date and names of people killed on that morning of an execution that took place in that location. The subject matter for this series is so serious and as a British person it is really haunting to know that British soldiers around my age were treated like this just for not being able to cope in such a horrible war.
The way these landscapes are so empty and many are overgrown really communicates that this is something that the countries involved would rather forget. And that killing these people didn't achieve anything.
In terms of my own less literal subject matter, looking at this series has made me think more about how I can capture in some way an element of the event that apparently has happened in each of the my locations I will be photographing. As in Dewe Matthews' project she has captured the time of day they occurred at as well, which will be difficult for me as I am unable to drive to the places I want to photograph. Instead I think taking all the photographs at the same time of day may give it a better consistency that I am looking for. I don't want to make too many aesthetic decisions that will overcomplicate how people read the subject matter but I definitely don't want to take the photographs at night. I think that taking my photographs around midday will give my subject matter clarity in a way that does not look at though I am trying to add anything to it.