“Some suffer a lifetime in a day, and so grow old between the rising and the setting of the sun.” — Augusta Jane Evans
I have never been to war. Back in college, I thought about it deeply — it seemed to be something of a rite of passage for a budding photojournalist. It was the history of photography class – and Dr. Parr – who got me started on the path. I spent hours studying war images from a hundred years ago, from last week, and everything in between. The photographs flew off the pages, seared into my memory in a timeless, cyclical assault. Still, I came to understand that I could not ever go to war — I could not willingly walk into that horror and survive (how I arrived at that realization is another story for another day).
As I go about my life, I have always been drawn to those who ventured towards that dark, gaping hole. The ones who have stood at that edge and peered into the inexplicable blackness. These soldiers and sentinels are on every corner in America, navigating a mind-boggling return to nuanced social etiquette, the curious torture that is traffic and grocery store shopping. They are instantly recognizable with their straight backs, steely eyes that have seen too much, and their fragile, frantically beating hearts.
I have been most surprised by the stories of diplomacy from war. One example: At Fort Hood a couple of years ago, moments after showing me a video clip of a road unfolding like a horrifically graceful ribbon in Iraq, courtesy of an IED, my friend Matthew told me the story of the Iraqi man he had befriended. He led me to his sparse closet filled mostly with army greens — to the far left hung a lone, flowing yellow gown, speckled with hopeful sequins. It is the wedding dress made by his friend in Iraq for his future bride.
This is a very long segue into the actual subject at hand – writing a blog post about photographing the memory of a war 100 years later as a travel feature. I will admit, the commission made me a bit nervous. It is one thing to photograph war unfolding. It is quite another to photograph a century old memory as a travel piece of all things (with travel being characterized as the ideal – the whole point of travel journalism is to compel people to visit a particular region). My concern: I did not want to belittle the memory of the war in any way by adding the requisite smiles and beauty that go with travel photography.
The funny thing about history is that it is here before you know it. This moment, right now, is incredibly fleeting. It is like an excruciatingly bright spotlight roaming over time – as we stare into that light it is hard to see – to imagine – beyond it. Yet, the conflicts of today will fade, quite soon, relegated to the slowly moving shadows of history.
With that meandering (and incomplete) preamble, I give you my very late, and very short dispatch from the Western Front (specifically: Verdun, France — 100 years tardy): I am here to tell you that, although there is still an alarming amount of barbed wire and human bones to be found in the verdant forests, most of the bomb-cratered, blood-drenched landscape has been covered with soft, green grass that encourages leisurely picnics; the land yields delicious foods and there are wonderful restaurants; that the French, Germans and Belgians interact, perhaps a bit reluctantly in regards to historical events, but they have created a series of exquisite borderland beers. It is nice to sit down and enjoy a beer and talk to the one next to you. It is a beautiful place to visit, and if you go I suspect that you’ll sense how memory whispers through the forests with the grace that only comes with age.
The writer for the piece: The amazing Ceil Miller Bouchet. Read her beautiful words:
Also, I was a featured contributor in this issue: