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excerpt from Sue Georgevits’ article on the role of private memories in understanding the past

Georgevits, S. ‘To Jean from Bill: History, Memory and Photography’, Public History Review, Vol 5/6, 1996-7

The Album's Significance to the Historian

In my view, the album can be seen as an historical artefact in its own right rather than just a visual record. As Stokes suggests, the contribution that photographs can make should not be ignored or underestimated but cherished for the cloud of witnesses contained within. Personal photographs not only give the viewer a sense of immediacy: they can stimulate remembering and expose memorabilia from the time. Thus photographs can contribute to developing a critical awareness of how the past relates to, or is remembered in, the present. While photographs give clues about the time when they were taken, the technology of the period and people's personal and cultural preoccupations, photographs from personal collections (as opposed to wedding or baby snaps) can tell the historian a great deal more than this.

Patricia Holland highlights one of the most complex issues in the debate on how personal photographs can be interpreted and used in history when she argues that they pose 'a series of challenges to different pasts, as memory interweaves with private fantasy and public history'. It is this possibility of private fantasy that raises doubts for some historians as to the validity of incorporating memory as part of historical analysis. It is perhaps for this reason that personal photographs have been largely ignored by social historians. When personal photographs have been used it has been for the purpose of illustration or to add an element of human interest to the work. Yet these uses of private photographs do not come to terms with the meanings embedded within them nor their cultural or social value.

Photographs became an obvious point from which to examine the ways in which people remember. It is memories of the participants that will bring the photographs to life and uncover new possibilities about the past that other sources such as official and written records fail to engender. The actual album can give the historian an intimate insight into the lives of individuals rather than just a record of events. Although the photograph as evidence is no different from other sources in that they are inadequate if used alone, photography has an added complexity because 'a photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen'. Moreover, it significantly changes according to who is viewing it. As shown earlier, the audience is an active recipient and their role must be considered carefully in any analysis.

In many ways the historical usefulness of the private album is to be found in the memories and associations which can be brought to these photographs, rather than the detail contained within. Often it is not what the actual photograph shows but the connection between the private involvement in or memory of the public event that is important. As with oral history, photographs and the memory work that accompanies them can contribute to a broader representation of the past beyond the life of the individual.

Photo-collections such as this also shed light on some of the ways in which the soldiers wanted the war to be perceived by those they loved. They highlight in this sense the vast differences between the personal and official recording of the war. In The Photographic Record of The War, C.E.W. Bean documented the outbreak and the theatres of war in which the Australian soldiers fought. The personal experiences of the men as they waited to go to the front or while they were on leave was not considered to be part of the history of a country at war nor worth recording. While there are an enormous number of sources from which to gain insights into these aspects of the experiences of the soldiers such as letters and diaries, personal photo-collections can contribute visual and textual richness to these sources.

Through the collection, Bill creates a narrative of his life while overseas in the way that he wants Jean to view it. As such, the album offers an opportunity to view one man's expression of his life overseas while at war. The collection consists of images of travel to England and Wales while on leave. It includes posed yet candid shots of mates that served in France with him. Despite the soldiers generally being pictured in uniform, of the ninety-six photographs in the collection only five give any indication of the seriousness of the war. The other photographs of France are of days spent back at the barracks, visits to chateaus, sports days and staging entertainment amongst mates. The photograph of them leaning on their rifles outside the Chateau Montigny suggests holidays rather than at war. The rifles appear as props rather than instruments of death.

Overall, the album gives a sense of excitement, travel and opportunity. There is no feeling of the tragedy and hardship that we know was a part of the war on the western front in 1916-17. Even the five photographs of life in the trenches are deliberately posed to develop a sense of fun and humour as indicated by the sign above the trench: 'Bob Down You're Spotted'. This photograph has a digger comfortably lounging on the side of a trench looking at the sign. The trench is very neat and well constructed with duck boards in place. There is no evidence of mud. The soldier is well dressed. While the exact date and position of the trench is unknown, given that the photograph's background has been obliterated by shells it suggests that there is more to survival than just bobbing down. It is well known that by 1917 the western front was the face of death and destruction: this photograph has evidence of some heavy fighting. Humour was an essential ingredient in the survival of the men in the trenches. This humorous depiction of life in the trenches was perhaps included by Bill to alleviate concerns of his family and to act as positive record of his experiences upon his return home.

Another photograph in the collection labelled 'No Mans' Land – Hill 60' is quite clearly the background of the previous image. While the photograph certainly gives an indication of the devastation as the countryside has been obliterated, even so the real cost of war is hidden from the viewer because there is no evidence of fighting or death. The juxtaposition of the humour and devastation is also evident in the photograph of 'O.P. Hill 60'. The soldier is lounging back on a pole with branches on the top as if he is sunning himself on a beach. The irony of this photograph is that it was in such a position that Bill was wounded. While there are a few photographs in the collection of damaged buildings in Strazelle, France, that do give a real sense of the obliteration that occurred, all the other photographs are of group shots, of leave in Wales and of sports days, thus reinforcing the idea that war was fun and an adventure.

While the collection gives the impression that war was an adventure, it would have been useful to know what Bill as the album's creator intended to depict. How did he view this album and his experiences of war? For example, was the album meant to be a record of fond memories, a souvenir or a carefully constructed view of the war to alleviate Jean's fears? Such a view of war as that represented in the album was common amongst the soldiers as indicated in their letters home. There is much in Bill's visual record of his experiences that would bear similarities to those of other men. Parallels such as this can occur even with photographs that are not about an experience as memorable or as collective as war. What seems to be a unique and, indeed private, destiny is in fact part of a wider social pattern.

When considering the value for the historian of the personal photocollection the album must take on significance beyond what Bill intended as its creator. By tracing episodes depicted throughout – men in the training camps, fighting in Flanders, on leave and mates posing outside barracks– a sense of the collective experiences of these men and the importance of their friendships is evoked. This takes the audience beyond the immediate visual nature of each photograph. In these photographs the 'participants present themselves directly to the camera in an act of celebratory cooperation'. A sense of mateship and family is also developed.

Perhaps it is not surprising that included in the album are photographs of relatives who were also at war in the same area. The importance of family is reinforced in the letters Bill sent Jean during the war. Oddly, in the midst of the photographs of his mates there is a photograph of Bill's father. As with the photographs of friends and family while on leave, Bill appears to be seeking to bring a sense of family to the front. Similar sentiments were expressed in the letters and postcards he sent Jean.

As is the case with any one source, the album gives a skewed view of war. Yet the audience is still left with a clear insight into the ways in which Bill wanted to experience his experiences to his loved ones. While it has been acknowledged that it is a vastly different picture from that of the official history of the First World War, just as the official record is selective so is Bill's album. His album gives the impression that while at war he spent his leave with married friends and certainly not at dances or socialising with young women. From other sources, however, there is evidence that many Australians spent their leave in a much more risque fashion than that depicted by Bill. Whether or not this was the case with Bill, it is clear that he would not have wanted this to have been evident to his prospective fiancee. Barthes reminds us that the narrator of a story – and in this case the photographer – is a character amongst others. Bill has a dual role as participant and photographer. Questions can be posed on both counts. For example, it would be useful to know why Bill changed some captions: 'Diggers Repairing Trenches' was changed to 'Training'. This might have been that the latter makes the war seem less imminent or he may have wished the album to have a more formal tone.

The album tells us a great deal about how Bill wanted Jean, and others who would see the album, to view the war and his participation in it. While the sense of mateship during the war has become mythologised through the Anzac tradition, the feelings that the young soldiers were 'in it together' is confirmed by the visual record of the personal experiences of this man. Bill's reasons for selecting events to photograph may have been different. As inferred, these were not images of the bloodiness and destruction of war: they were safe and comforting images for those who were worried about their menfolk in war. Yet it must be emphasised that the relationships between men were a fundamental part of their experiences of war and a significant part of their survival under difficult conditions. As a result, the private album moves from being a personal representation of the past to an illustration of the collective experience of the past.

Reproduced with permission of the author Sue Georgevits.


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