In many respects then, this image is, for me, quite an unsettling one – even more than that I discussed before. ‘The men that we’re about to bury,’ the men seem to be saying, ‘are just like you’. (I was reminded, looking at this image, of the fact that when soldiers marched to the front, just before an attack, they sometimes saw the huge pits dug in preparation for their deaths.)
But would such interpretations arise if the image were black and white? My feeling is they wouldn’t and having made the image monochrome, I can see why.
For one thing, it ceases to be an image into which I feel I could step; it remains very much an image. Colour delineates distance, whereas in black and white the image seems a lot flatter. (I have to point out that I’m not suggesting black and white photos don’t convey distance, or that this colour image, made black and white accurately reflects how it would look if shot on black and white film. The autochrome process, when made black and white like this, makes the resulting image very grainy). Secondly, the men no longer seem to be looking at me, but rather at the photographer. But most importantly, as a black and white image, this picture ceases to be about the soil, the substance which, during the war claimed both the living and the dead. The distinction between the soil and the grass is lost – a distinction which, in light of the time (1919), is especially poignant. Nature returns to reclaim what’s hers, and following the gaze of the diggers, that includes us. World War I was about, amongst many other things, the soil and vast ruination – and that is what this image is about. The grass comes as it comes upon castles ruined over long stretches of time. But as Christopher Woodward writes in his book In Ruins ‘Nature’s agent does not have to be flowers or fig-trees. In the case of Van Gogh, it was the miserable mud of Flanders.’
I see this photograph very much in terms of its texture. I see its weight, as if its colour makes it synaesthetic: I see in terms of touch. Empathy – as regards an empathetic understanding of this image – does not mean I empathise with what these men were doing when the photograph was taken, or what they too had certainly endured in the preceding years of war, but that I can see this moment as having once been now. As I wrote before, if anything hinders an empathetic engagement with the war, it’s the sense that it’s always already happened. In this image, it has already happened, but the wounds are still raw.
Empathy is a dialogue between bodily experience and knowledge. Visiting a battlefield, what we know of the war influences our bodily experience and vice-versa. Empathy is in many respects articulated through metaphor. The same is true of the photograph; but whereas on a battlefield we stand in the landscape, we can only look at the image, such is where a synaesthetic response is so important, and synaesthesia is after all a kind of metaphorical discourse.