The photographs I’ve been looking at sway deliriously between public and private spheres. They are highly significant for me now; even more so for my dad’s (widowed) mother who at some stage will have received one of these cards; but also part of a big (world-wide) military machine that in some of its cogs had room for humane practices. How the heart must have seized on this sign of life. And was there relief too, when war was still raging and the German side losing, in knowing that the son/husband/brother was not on the battlefield anymore, and his chances of survival had increased? In these circumstances it seems phenomenal to have a photograph and not just an impersonal notification. You could search the face and what is visible of the body for clues: Is he well? Was he wounded? Did he loose an eye or a limb? Does he get enough to eat? His mother would have been better placed to read her son’s features than I am all these years later. And I wonder if the PoWs were allowed to fill in the address themselves, their handwriting an additional personal element, or if the details were taken from files.
This would have been the only contact while interned. I imagine his mother keeping the card in a special place, a drawer in her bedside table, or maybe in her bible or prayer book (she was devoutly catholic), until he came back in 1946,
Registration. Notification. Remembrance of someone who is far away. The photograph’s character and function changed once more (with all those others hanging from its tail) if and when the PoW came home (whatever that might have been at the time). In my dad’s case the set of photo-cards (individual, pair, group – blank, unused) ended up in his photo-album which starts with his arrival in the world and ends 32 years later when he and my mother married and both their albums merged… A different kind of remembrance now, of something that is – at least officially/externally, over. Did he include them as an attempt to achieve a probably tenuous sense of continuity? Was it also a way of moving from history and heteronomy (learned a new word!) towards everyday life?
Without thinking why I’ve focussed on the card which shows him and a second young PoW. Imagining him traumatised by war, without bearings and suddenly on another continent (as far as I know his first experience of ‘abroad’ was brought about by war too, more about that another time) do I console myself, let myself be lured into thinking when it’s no more than wishing, that the second person might have become a sibling of sort, a friend?
But I’ve also chosen this photo in order to juxtapose it with one of my brother and me as children. There are similarities in pairings and postures and – in the widest sense – the relative formality of the setting (ordinary and extra-ordinary), outside home. I brought cuttings of the two images together in my earlier collages and now have simplified further and exchanged (= crudely photoshopped) mouth and eyes of the adults with those of us kids and vice versa. The outcome is strangely disconcerting.
I am interested in the fact that everybody is looking slightly to the right. We share four visible arms; both my dad’s are invisible. I’ve also brought our young faces more directly into their adult ones – just half a kid’s features changes the PoWs’ completely. Confession: I catch myself shying away from showing these, as I do not like the new, accidentally created expressions. Interesting… Note to self: beware of idealisations.
→ continued below