EYEMAZING magazine Fall issue 2005
The Never-Ending War
Text by Tyler Whisnand
In some cases, we are fooling ourselves time and time again if we fail to realise that we are, in the end, and currently, the manifestation of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and how we’ve lived. This is the “why” in us, our inner-meaning, intentional or not. So, when we are confronted by this reality we are made aware, in a clearer context, of the fact that we are integral parts of a consciousness, a series of events, a chain reaction of ideas and also, when beliefs collide, thrown helplessly into the traumas of war.
To give words to the experiences of the veterans in Martin Roemers’s portraits is a humbling task. Roemers has done much of this delicate job himself. He hasn’t let himself off the hook in that regard. Accompanying each of the black-and-white images is an interview, a memory, a written piece of who they are which gives us some hint at the dark murkiness that lurks behind the sharp tips of each portrait.
Roemers doesn’t hold back in his depiction of the veterans he encounters. He brings us face to face with them and maintains a strict format for his photographs. Each face is framed in a similar way with eyes facing forward, glaring at us, or staring through us, looking past us, seeing someplace else, above us, or below us, remembering, frustrated, trying to forget, hopeless, hopeful, on display, and therefore challenging us to see beyond the limits of sight. The confrontation is unforgiving even if they, themselves, seek forgiveness. Is that possible? The collection of portraits evokes the sensation of being cast into a room full of people we have inadvertently met in the dark and now someone has thrown on the lights.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Martin Roemers undertook a project to make a portrait of a selection of veterans from different countries. His intention was to document the many different angles and stories that revolve in and around the war. Through his portraits and his labours over the period of 2004-5, we are presented with veterans, both male and female, from Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies, Germany, and Poland. The portraits show the links and overlaps of a mutual involvement. Here we find the haunting regrets and the emotional bonds that have clung to every moment of their existences since they became willing or unwilling participants in a world war.
The images are like a collection of irons that have been left plugged-in, burning themselves at the edges and fronts of the portraits. The beauty of their decay: humans with skin that droops helplessly with age, failing eyesight, hair that’s disappeared. And yet, still somewhere in all of them there is that selfsame weight of having seen something far beyond what we can understand. Roemers himself admits that he came into contact with moments and feelings he was not prepared for. And this is what unites the work in the The Never-Ending War even more firmly. It’s not just the photographic subject but also those who come into contact with the protraits. The meaning waits here.
Nature has a greater imagination than all of us. There are things that happen in the course of events that most of us have no control over. We are propelled into mutual experience. We are together in its motion. World War II was started for certain reasons, and now these reasons have evolved into something more and more real with the setting-in of new realities and perspectives. The war goes on. It is a war that involves fighting off renewed pain, regret, that long period of time that still robs a generation of its youth, replaces its dreams, and sets it adrift while sharing common fears, whether they were heroes, perpetrators, villains, or victims. They are all one now.
Look at the nurse, Ansje van de Walle, who once cared for the wounded during war. She continues to care for them even as they now lie six feet under. She visits their graves and informs the cemetery’s gardener if anything needs tending to. She refuses to leave them without proper care. They are her charges even now.
There is the man, Tadeusz Wenda, who remembers an enemy soldier wounded in the woods when he and his company happened upon him. The soldier was missing his legs and begged to be shot, but they left the soldier to meet his own end, unassisted. This still haunts the man. Does he still walk through the woods looking for this soldier, hearing his voice, wishing he had done something differently now? The eternal dilemma of what could have been, what should been, and what choices were made that cannot be changed, never-ending.
There is also the madness of the war’s connected waves of involvement. The portrait of Cleem König who was captured by the Japanese and placed in a prisoner of war camp in Nagasaki is particularly telling of the potent connections to mutual atrocities. The Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki while König was still in that camp. A month later, he was released and taken to an aircraft carrier. He was decontaminated with DDT powder and hosed off with water. He didn’t know anything about the atomic bomb or its potential effects on his body at the time. It was not until the 1970s that he was diagnosed with a form of leukemia, which was the beginning of his long battle with illnesses, tumours, blood transfusions, and numerous operations. He looks at us as if from behind the bars of a jail of confusion and helplessness; a time capsule unearthed with its time not fully passed – living history.
Only time can tell who will end up the winners and losers in these events, if such classifications can even apply. What is clear, however, is that no one comes together at the annual memorials with pleasure. They come to remember. They come to remember together no matter if they are man or woman, German or American, Polish or Russian. Roemers’s photographs make us look at human beings, stripped and then reloaded with new identities. The intensity of Roemers’s skill creates numerous entrance points, numerous dramatic openings to make some human sense of what happened and what continues to happen in the daily lives of these veterans.
At the end of his book, The Never-Ending War, Roemers decides to step back from his direct look at the veterans to show us a “bit of air”. Switching to colour, we see WWII veterans attending different memorial services and the environments they return to physically and emotionally. It is at this point that we fully realise that war is never-ending in the lives of its participants. The effects of any war forever keep their grip on our fellow beings, whether they are our grandparents, our great-grandparents or our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, now pushed to the perimeters, now questioning right and wrong, eternally re-examining their own decency, their own conduct, faced with the thunder of fear. They are on a never-ending search for some elusive understanding that they hope will give them some measure of peace, an understanding that will put everything to rest whenever it has the grace to make itself known.
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