It’s hard to tell where this image was taken, whether in a garden or a public park, but clearly it shows a young man in his new army uniform about to head to war. He stands to attention, albeit somewhat awkwardly, staring into the camera – almost through it, into the distance. I wonder as I look at him who is on the other side taking the photograph? A proud parent perhaps, an anxious one? A friend or maybe some other relative? The young man in question would, I imagine, have left soon after the image was taken and the question is there to be asked: would they – whoever it was – have seen him again? Behind him a tangle of brambles foreshadows the barbed wire entanglements laid out in front of the trenches, wire on which so many like this young man lost their lives.
As with the previous images I’ve discussed (see Empathy and the First World War Part 1 and Part 2) I’m interested in how I can find a way of empathising with this individual, a young man whose name has been lost and who, for all I know, exists only within the image on this postcard. The difference between this ‘image’ and those discussed previously are that this is a physical object – a postcard; one of a number printed as keepsakes. However, as I look at it, I try as I do with other photographs to imagine the moment in which it was taken. I imagine the click of the camera , satisfied comments from the photographer, after which the young man picks up his cap, puts it on and walks off down the path. The crunch of footsteps dissipates along with the voices and I am for that moment left standing looking at the brambles and the undergrowth.
For some reason it’s hard for me to visualise this young man in colour – there’s something in his face which prevents me from seeing him talk. But without him there I can picture the rest of the scene easily enough in colour; I can see the colour of the bricks, the undergrowth and the path. I can see the leaves move and then imagine myself moving, turning and seeing people walking in the distance. I can hear sounds – birds and so on, perhaps because I can hear them outside my window on what is a beautiful spring-like day. It’s a photograph which depicts the presence of the young man in the picture and yet speaks of his absence, which is of course hardly surprising given that it was taken almost 100 years ago. Whether he survived the war or not he’s going to be absent from the world today.
The way in which I hold the postcard and look at the image is important, for it no doubt echoes that of those who knew him, who whilst he was away looked at the image and remembered their friend or loved one; someone who was present in their minds and yet absent from their immediate world.
On the reverse are the words ‘POST CARD’ and a ‘T’ shaped divide between correspondence and address. The postcard itself is blank, save for the 15p pencilled in the corner – the apparent monetary value of the image. I’ve worked before on the idea of the ‘T’ shape as being like a makeshift grave-marker and having looked at the photograph on the other side and having imagined him walking away – leaving just the image of the brambles – it becomes all the more poignant. There is no message, no address. Just ’15p’.
When looking at the previous images (see Empathy and the First World War Part 1 and Part 2) there was one moment with which I could attempt to empathise – that being when the image was captured, but with the postcard there are many more which I can narrow down to two, one specific, the other more general. The first of course is again when the image was taken, the second an amalgamation of all the times it was handled, held between two hands just as I’ve been holding it today. The postcard, as an object, fits physically into a sequence of ‘gestures’, a moment in which the stark boundary between now and then – as described when a photograph is taken – is blurred. Empathy in this respect is not necessarily with the young man, but with those who remembered him; not with the man within the image, but with those who held the image.
Thinking about my hands holding the postcard, turning it round now, I find myself looking at the young man’s hands hanging at his side. They remind me of the hands of the corpse in the first image I looked at (see Part 1) and again an empathetic link is established. I wrote earlier how I found it hard to imagine his face moving in any way – it seems definitively frozen by the camera – and yet looking at his hands the opposite is true. I can well imagine them twitching nervously, unsure of what to do as he stands to attention.
I think too of the grass in the second image (see Part 2) growing over the turned earth and can well imagine the brambles behind the man doing the same.
I’ve written before how empathy is a kind of feedback loop, where our own bodily experience is influenced by our knowledge and vice-versa, growing all the while so that bodily experience influences knowledge whether, in the case of this subject, standing on a battlefield or looking at a photograph. I can see this loop working as regards the images I’ve discussed so far, how empathy accumulates slowly over time.