The Helmand project
Artist and ex-paratrooper Derek Eland deployed to Afghanistan with 16 Air Assault Brigade in 2011, during Operation Herrick 13. His resulting work ‘In Our Own Words' was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum North and hailed as a groundbreaking interpretation of the 21st Century front line.
Derek was recently interviewed by Defence Focus magazine for a feature on war artists, which appears the April 2014 issue. The transcript of that interview follows:
When did you decide on the project?
It probably went back a couple of years before I went. I’m ex Parachute Regiment. I left the Parachute Regiment in the 1980s, but I kept in contact with some people who I met [with] a couple of years before I went to Afghanistan. I went to a regimental dinner in fact, and there was a discussion, and the speech by the colonel commandant was pretty much along the lines of “lots of you have left and you’re now civilians and if you think you can bring something back to the military then let’s have a conversation”. A very close friend of mine became the brigade commander for 16 Air Assault Brigade and, after that dinner, the next morning we both had a chat about if I was to go with the brigade to Afghanistan what would I do? We were both really clear right at the beginning that I wouldn’t go out and draw and paint.
I looked at the history of war art, going back to Lady Butler, and right up to John Keane. A couple of things struck me; one was that, predominantly, in almost every case a war artist is traditionally someone who draws or paints or, increasingly, photographs, and I thought, ‘well I can’t bring anything new to this, and possibly can’t better it’.
The thing that struck me was that quite a lot of the war artists, they spent time out there observing what’s going on, so they might be looking at troops in action, possibly behind the front line, and they might make drawings and sketches, but the finished work is predominantly done back in the UK. Lots of the artists I encounter, particularly people who’d been to Afghanistan, tended to do initial work out there and then work it up when they got back.
What I wanted to do was, well two things: one was a different take on the war, I wanted to find a way to get inside the soldiers’ heads, but also I wanted the work to be complete whilst I was there on the front line; I didn’t want to then come back to the UK and finish it off.
I had been doing some work previous to this project, in the UK, using diary rooms as a way of accessing emotion and the intensity of the reaction of people under stress. I’d been the artist in residence in a town which was flooded out, for example, and I set up a diary room there.
So the idea that emerged through this conversation with the brigadier was that I would undertake, possibly for the first time, a socially engaged project on the front line, and set up, in this case, 3 diary rooms in forward operating bases and ask soldiers, and also civilians, everyone I met, to write a story of what it’s like to be on the front line, on a postcard. Obviously that was partly referencing postcards from the trenches 100 years on - I was very much mindful of that - but also in a digital age when no one writes anymore, everyone tweets and everything is instant, I wanted to get this collective self-portrait through handwriting, because I thought that would reveal something that couldn’t be revealed through a webcam, or couldn’t be revealed in a more reflective statement that’s written when people get back.
How did the Ministry of Defence and Top Brass react to your proposal?
The brigade commander was very supportive and understood it, and without his help I wouldn’t have made it. There was some resistance. I spent a bit of time with 16 Brigade and I met quite a bit of resistance from people who thought it wouldn’t work, who thought it would be pointless, that it might be a negative experience; [they thought that] people might write really negative comments which might undermine morale.
Even I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I got there. I suppose that’s a classic case with any war artist; you don’t quite know what situation you’re going to be in; you don’t know whether you’ll find the right material, or if it will work. So there’s quite a lot left to chance in a way.
But we overcame that resistance, and I got myself out to Afghanistan, and what I found was that all was not quite what I thought it would be.
When I got to these three forward operating bases, I kind of half-assumed that the majority of the soldiers in these three companies, the Irish Guards, Royal Irish Regiment and 2 PARA, would be in one location, and I would just set up my diary room and wander round inside the security of the forward operating base (FOB) and ask them for their stories. But the reality was that soldiers there, in 2011, were dotted around dozens of little check points, and so there were very few people in these FOBs. So I had to get out on the ground and patrol to where they were. And that really helped me, for reasons that I didn’t anticipate: One was that in patrolling and coming under fire and coming across IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and things like this, I ended up taking the same risks as the soldiers. So I wasn’t an artist who stood apart and observed and stayed back in a relatively safe place. I took the same risk. And that enabled me to ask, ‘could I have your story’.
The second thing that really helped is that I didn’t have very long in these check points, sometimes I’d only have about 40 minutes. And I wasn’t interested in asking people to have a think and write their story on a postcard and give it back to me tomorrow; I very much wanted people to write it there and then. It is a bit like, if you’re an artist with a sketch pad, doing something straight off; sometimes that’s the best work, as it’s the most immediate. And I found, with my work, not giving people too long to think about it meant that they didn’t have time to think about being politically correct … they just wrote down what was inside their heads, straight off, and there was a rawness and honesty to that which to me, as an artist, was brilliant.
One of the soldiers, a Royal Irish ranger I think, said he wasn’t going to write about the traditional thing you might expect, about the fighting and the bombing and stuff. He was going to write about what he called ‘two wars’; the second being the war that goes on in a soldier’s head when the fighting stops. I kind of wanted this self-portrait, this huge collective self-portrait, and I think that what it captured in these 400 or 500 stories was the war that goes on in these soldiers’ heads when the fighting stops.
I joined just after the Falklands. I did some live ops when I was in 3 PARA, but I wasn’t really under fire until I became a war artist.
When I was under fire I filmed this engagement, and looking back I probably behaved like a soldier in some sense. The training kicked in, so I immediately got out my webcam and my digital camera, my Handycam, and I just filmed this 20 minutes of firing. To me it was quite important to capture that, because I wanted a record of those people who’d written those really emotional, heart-rending postcards, I wanted the public to see that they were also soldiers.
We had a very clear strategy at the beginning not to just engage with British soldiers, so it was basically anyone I met who I could safely ask for their story. So Afghan interpreters wrote their stories, and Afghan National Army, and visiting journalists, and American forces, Danish… all nationalites… New Zealand, Canadian, all over the UK and Ireland. So it was very much a snapshot of what it’s like to be human in this place as well as what it’s like to be a soldier.
The original work is currently being held at Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art because they’re exhibiting the work in November this year. The book launch is, coincidentally, going to be at the same time (11 November 2014) and the same place as the exhibition.
Another thing to mention is that I’ve linked up with Combat Stress, because, while some people who wrote stories suffered physical injuries, it’s a metaphor, I think, for the stresses and strains and the unsaid when soldiers are on the front line. I think that a lot of people who have been on the front line and perhaps have thought these thoughts and not written them down, what I’ve discovered is that there is enormous value for other people to read these. And the link to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is quite strong. So, I’ve linked up with Combat Stress to give some of the proceeds from the book to that charity.
Did you have any agenda? Were you pressured to come at it from any angle?
No, there was no pressure at all, which is brilliant, because as an artist, we all resist that. So there was no pressure or agenda. Even at the end, all the postcards were operationally cleared, for viewing by members of the public. There was nothing censored out on the basis that it was politically incorrect or it was too graphic or too difficult, potentially, for viewers and audiences. There were only a very small number edited out for security reasons, because soldiers mentioned things that perhaps the military didn’t want to disclose, mainly about technology out in Afghanistan.
I was really pleased that there wasn’t any censoring at all of the work. I was slightly worried that all of this stuff would get censored out but, again, the brigade commander just drove it forward. I didn’t intend the work to be either seditious or to be politicised in any way.
I actually didn’t know whether anyone would write anything at all, and if they did write I’d no idea what they were going to write! So it was completely unpredictable. That’s the beauty and also the challenge of this kind of art, I think. It is so utterly unpredictable. I think you can determine a number of factors and you can give yourself the best chance, and fortunately all those ingredients seemed to fall into place for me whilst I was there. And they did write, and they did write amazing things.
No one has ever said, ‘gosh we can’t show this’, or no one ever took me aside at the beginning and said, ‘just make sure we get a positive slant on this’.
Overall, the message that comes through from all these stories is a difficult message. It doesn’t glorify war and it isn’t political in any sense, but it is a difficult message that people on the front line, they view. There is a turmoil in their heads that is there and probably gets stronger when they get home. And I don’t think anyone really knows how to deal with that. I know that governments are investing in that; how to deal with post-traumatic stress.
I think this work probably shines a spotlight on some of the areas where some of those stresses and traumas start; inside people’s heads.
What do you consider the role of a war artist to be? Why are they important?
I can’t really speak for anyone else. Obviously I’ve seen a lot of war artists’ work…
From my point of view, what a war artist should try to do is to bring a new perspective to conflict. So, in the translation of what that artist sees to what the viewer then sees back in the UK, or back away from the front line, I think what an artist should be doing is bringing a new perspective and hopefully challenging old viewpoints, old prejudices, possibly the wrong view of a conflict, or indeed soldiering. So I think it is about challenging and changing perceptions. Alfredo Jaar and his work in Rwanda was brilliant at that.
I’d like to think that my work has certainly challenged the perceptions of members of the public about what it is like to be a soldier on the front line, and the honesty and surprising element, and very often eloquent element of what was written. Individually they are very moving, but also collectively they hopefully provide a step-change in people’s views of the war in an unpoliticised way. I think that all good artists should emotionally connect with the viewer, but also they should challenge and potentially change the perceptions of viewers in a way that modern technology and webcams and stuff can’t do.
There are two problems with technology, I think. One is that you see things in a very black and white way, with say film footage of conflicts and headcams and so on. It’s an anaesthetised view of war; you don’t really see the people and the effect on people. The second problem is that a lot of the modern day accounts of conflict are often written back in the UK after the event. Again, I don’t think that really provides anything new in terms of an insight.
Muirhead Bone was doing his wonderful drawings and etchings back in 1916, and when they were seen, before photography really took hold, they would have had an enormous impact. I’m of that same profession and I would like to think that the work that I’ve done also has that impact in changing people’s perceptions of war.
'In Our Own Words' by Derek Eland will be published on 11 November 2014.