No Man’s Land: Women photographers in the First World War
A new exhibition exploring female perspectives on the First World War has opened at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, featuring images taken by women working on the frontline, as well as contemporary artists directly inspired by the conflict. We talked to Dr Pippa Oldfield, curator of the exhibition, to find out more…
Please note this article contains images of a sensitive nature
Q. What was the inspiration for the exhibition?
A. We wanted to commemorate the centenary of the First World War at Impressions Gallery, but take a different angle. We decided to look at women’s experiences of the First World War through their photography. There has been quite a lot of focus recently on women’s roles in the first world war, but their contribution to war photography seems to have been ignored in favour of photos made by men. As a curator, what I was interested in doing was finding out what kind of pictures women took and how their use of photography would express their own experiences and perspective. That was the question that kicked off the project.
Q. What do these photographs tell us about women’s experiences?
A. Women couldn’t join the armed forces as soldiers during the First World War, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t get involved in other ways. While many women worked on the home front, others volunteered for overseas positions. The women in our exhibition – Mairi Chisholm, Florence Farmborough and Olive Edis – were all working overseas during the war and taking photographs coming from different angles.
Mairi Chisolm is a particularly interesting case study. She was this intrepid ambulance driver who volunteered to join the Flying Ambulance Corps when she was 18-years-old. She then went with her friend Elsie Knocker to set up a first aid post in Belgium just yards away from the trenches, and she used a snapshot camera to take photographs of the kind of things she was seeing and experiencing. Some of her images are horrific – particularly those depicting dead soldiers and no man’s land – but they also depict plenty of fun moments too. There are quite a few photographs that she took that show Elsie joking around with the Belgian soldiers. Her images show how people can make the best of difficult and traumatic circumstances. They’re very warm and human – quite different to the official war photography that was released at that time. So compared to someone like Horace Nicholls [appointed Home Front Official Photographer during the First World War], whose images of women’s war work on the home front are very orderly and composed, Mairi’s photographs are incredibly personal and spontaneous. They are almost reminiscent of the type of images people take on their mobile phones today.
Q. What can you tell us about photography in general at the time?
A. At the time of the First World War, snapshot cameras were still a very recent invention. They were cheap and portable, so you didn’t have to be a professional photographer to take pictures. It was a really big watershed moment in the history of war photography because it meant that ordinary people could capture their experiences. Kodak even marketed one particular snapshot camera – the Vest Pocket Kodak – as a soldier’s camera that could be taken to the front line and used to make a memento of the war.
Despite being advertised for soldiers, snapshot cameras were actually banned at the beginning of the war by Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. You have to remember that at this point in time newspapers were not permitted to show dead bodies, and the government didn’t want photos depicting the true horrors of war from reaching the general public. The ban was also in place to try to control incidents such as the publication of snapshots from the Christmas truce of December 1914 [an unofficial ceasefire that took place on the western front]. These images, showing troops ‘fraternising’ with the enemy, went against the nationalistic ethos of the day.
Q. How much would a snapshot camera cost?
A. When first introduced in the UK in 1912, they cost £1.10 (about £70 in today’s money). They weren’t super cheap, but they were certainly accessible to a lot of people. By 1915 at least 28,000 cameras had been sold in the UK alone. A lot of the women who volunteered to go to the western front were upper or middle-class, so they could generally afford a camera.
Q. Tell us about Olive Edis, who features in the exhibition. She has been described as the UK’s first official female war photographer– is this true?
A. I would say that she is the UK’s first official female photographer who was sent to a war zone. That’s because there was also the military photographer Christina Broom, who was official photographer to the Household Division, but she was based in the UK during the war and didn’t go abroad. Olive Edis was sent to Northern France and Flanders. She was not the first female war photographer to be officially commissioned in the world though – there are claims for other women in Spain, Mexico and the USA.
Q. How significant were Olive’s achievements?
A. It was a massive step forward for women. There weren’t that many professional photographers at the western front anyway – we’re talking less than 10 – so the fact that one of them was a woman was quite remarkable.
What’s interesting about Olive is that she was a portrait photographer, so she would traditionally work in a studio. That was the kind of photography that women were ‘allowed’ to do at the time. Being commissioned to photograph war, which was traditionally seen as a masculine field, was really quite unusual. Olive was quite revolutionary in that sense.
Q. Did women capture images or moments that perhaps wouldn’t have been noticed by a man? Is there a gender aspect to these photographs?
A. When I first began my PhD research into women and war photography, I did wonder whether men and women take different pictures. There is an assumption that women would shy away from taking pictures of the grislier details of war, but you can see from the photographs in our exhibition that this not the case. So I would say that the answer is no, but I think it’s also a bit more complicated than that.
In my opinion, there is nothing intrinsically different between men and women that makes them want to photograph different things. Where you do see differences in their work, this tends to be informed by access and the constraints or limitations imposed on gender roles. For example, if women are more likely to be working in nursing during the war, then naturally you might find more photos of that type of work. But it doesn’t mean that women are intrinsically more interested in photographing nursing than men.
One interesting thing to consider is whether women behave differently with female photographers. Olive Edis was commissioned by the Women’s Work Sub-Committee because they thought that she would get a different response than a male photographer. They believed that she would be more accepted by the women she was commissioned to photograph and could therefore get more intimate pictures. In this sense, the photographs that men and women take can perhaps be influenced by power dynamics and relationships.
Q. You mentioned that women’s contribution to war photography seems to have been overlooked in favour of photos made by men. Why is this?
A. The contribution of women to war photography is generally overlooked and underrated. There have been hundreds and hundreds of female photographers who have been ignored, so there’s still a lot of work to do to get them into the history books.
Part of the reason for this is that war has always been gendered as a masculine activity. In terms of photography and visual media, it just follows on from that. So war photography is something people associate with a daring photo-journalist out on the front line risking his life alongside the soldiers – someone like Robert Capa, for example, who made iconic pictures of the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings. Of course, this is something that has been difficult for women to emulate. Women have often been forbidden from being at the front lines, and historically their photographs have been received differently, perhaps considered not ‘authentic’, simply because they have not been made by a man. That’s something I hope this exhibition will demystify – the authentic experience of women who have experienced war. Their images are equally powerful and arresting.
Q. The exhibition includes works by modern-day photographers. What is the reason for this and what is the role of art in remembering events such as the First World War?
A. The exhibition commemorates the centenary, and I wanted to reflect some of the ways in which women are photographing war, a hundred years after the conflict. There are lots of ways art helps us respond to the world. Art can move us and it can make us feel empathy. Certainly, I had quite an emotional response to some of the images produced by our contemporary photographers. Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews, for example, is a really interesting body of work that explores a secret chapter of history – the stories of the men, some of whom were probably suffering from PTSD, who were executed by firing squad for desertion. What Chloe did was travel to the places in Northern France and Flanders where these men were executed and photographed the site at the same time of day and in the same season. Nothing is explicitly shown in the landscape, but what is really powerful about the images is that they let your imagination fill in the blanks. That’s a good example of how photography can be used to elicit an emotional response, spark our imagination and activate memories.
Q. Tell us about some of the other images that moved you…
A. I find some of the works by Mairi Chisolm really extraordinary because they show her humour and sense of mischief. There is this picture of two men on a see-saw – just yards away from no man’s land – that totally changed my view on what the First World War looked like. It’s so unexpected to see this moment of real warmth and humour taking place in such horrendous circumstances.
Florence Farmborough, on the other hand, captured some horrifyingly brutal images while photographing on the eastern front. There is this one image that I find incredibly sad – it’s a picture of a little Romanian boy and his arm has been blasted off by shrapnel. He’s sitting on the knee of a nurse and his face is just so desolate. It’s an image that really gets to you.
Q. What are you hoping that the audience takes away from this exhibition?
A. I hope the exhibition helps to broaden people’s understanding of what the war was really like and how it affected people. I hope that it helps to move people away from the idea that experiences of war are by nature a masculine experience. And although the subject matter of war is of course often upsetting, I also want people to take something positive from the women featured in the exhibition. I hope visitors will look back at them from the 21st century and see how pioneering they were and the risks that they took. I think their stories are really inspiring and I think people will go away from this exhibition feeling inspired too.
Dr. Pippa Oldfield is Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery in Bradford and curator of No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War. The exhibition will run at the gallery until the 30th December before beginning a tour of UK venues in 2018 and 2019, including Bristol Cathedral, The Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall.
The exhibition is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund for Historical Photographic Research.
For more information about women's experiences during the First World War, BBC One's new six-part series Women at War: 100 Years of Service is currently airing. The first four episodes are on BBC iPlayer now.