Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Eyes of War

Frederick Lennart Bentley  (United Kingdom, 1924)

"This book is made up of inescapable stories and unforgettable faces, which are largely unforgettable because those faces can no longer see anything thermselves", writes Cees Noteboom in his introduction. 

In 2004, Martin Roemers attended the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, France; he wanted to make portrait photographs of World War II veterans, one of these portraits was of Frederick Bentley whose story (blinded by a German grenade, left behind by his comrades, worked for thirty-three years as a mechanical engineer, inspecting machines by touch: "I had work, I married, and I had four children. I had a good life after the war") stayed with him and subsequently inspired this remarkable book.

It is not only the eyes that capture our attention, it is also the faces, faces that ressemble sculptures.

These men and women were photographed outside, sitting on a stool, against a black background. "A black background", writes Cees Noteboom, " is the same as no background at all, no distraction ...". Right, and so you look into faces that are images of a life. Some of them reminded me of death masks.

"It's easier to really look at someone in a photograph than in real life - no discomfort at meeting the other person's eye, no fear of being caught staring", writes A.M. Homes in 'The Mistress's Daughter'. I've always been very fond of this observation for it seemed so accurate. However, when looking into the faces of people who are blind I do sense, sometimes, a certain discomfort, it feels as if it is not right to look into their eyes.

Rudolf Söder (Germany, 1924)

Some of the portrayed have their eyes closed, others do not have eyes anymore. And because of that I seemed to ask myself more often than usual what was going through their minds. The brief texts that accompany the black-and-white photographs of The Eyes of War gave me a good idea of what the stories behind the pictures were. From Rudolf Söder I learn that he "didn't even want to be a soldier ... was sent to Russia", where fragments of an artillery grenade got into his eyes and blinded him.

Sieglinde Bartelsen (Germany, 1930)

Sieglinde Bartelsen was fourteen when she for the last time saw herself in the mirror. In November 1944, she became victim of a British bomb raid."The ophthalmologist told me that there was a hole in my retina and that I had to lie absolutely still. I needed an operation. An English ambulance took me to the hospital in Göttingen. The road was full of impact craters, which meant that I couldn't lie still. In the hospital, they weren't able to operate on my eye because it had been too badly damaged by the bumpy road."

A truly extraordinary tome!

Martin Roemers
The Eyes of War
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2012

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