Seeing the Invisible



on the work of Martin Roemers

Cees Nooteboom

War stories are unembellished. Frills are not added until later, when the stories are turned into literature, but literature has no truck with sentences such as, “In the blinded war veterans’ association, I’m the chairman of the group of blind men with no hands.” Most of the stories in this book have an epic beginning: “I needed to pee, so I left the shelter to go to the toilet.” “I turned my head because I thought my mate Wally had been hit by a Japanese bullet.” What makes sentences like this so inescapable is that you know something terrible is usually going to come next. This book is made up of inescapable stories and unforgettable faces, which are largely unforgettable because those faces can no longer see anything themselves.

Why that is, how it happened, is written in the stories that the photographer, Martin Roemers, has captured in his spare, pared-down prose, which hits you head on because there is nothing to hide behind. All you can do is what the people in the photographs always do: not look, but that is not what you do. You do look, if only because they can no longer do so and, with that ability lost, have laid themselves entirely bare. Each of these photographs is a sculpture. It was not Roemers who sculpted these blind people – it was war. You can read about how it happened in the stories that accompany these blind faces, stories of lives that are mostly told in between ten and twenty lines: that they were somewhere, why they were somewhere, why they can no longer see, how you go on living after that. Each story is an epic, told by the person who lived through it, so that you know which form of suffering formed these faces. Perhaps the conversations were longer but, if that is so, Roemers, with the skill of the writer that he is, has stripped away everything that might distract from that essence.

“The violin player had his arms amputated.” “My father was killed as a partisan fighting the Germans.” “When I was a fighter pilot, I shot down about twenty-five aircraft.” “In Finland, in 1941, we took up positions against the Russians.”

Each of these sentences tells of the war. Roemers has been called an archaeologist of war, and with good reason. I believe that this description was prompted by the nature of the photographs in his masterful book Relics of the Cold War, where old bunkers from the Cold War assume the atmosphere of ancient buildings, and he uses all manner of relics from that war to penetrate deep into the mysteries of what war, death, occupation, military life have all meant. When I look at his photographs of the photographs on the graves of Soviet soldiers in Potsdam, I see the images in The Eyes of War as a dramatic, but logical continuation. On the graves of those soldiers, there are still flowers, still colours. They were dead men, laid to rest among nostalgic decorations, relatives’ grief, floral designs, irrevocability, the melancholy start of the great act of forgetting.

The same does not apply to the photographs in The Eyes of War; these are living people who are telling their story one more time, the story of a world that has become invisible, with the bitter paradox of presenting people for us to look at who, almost without exception, can no longer look at anything themselves, and there is a further paradox, because nearly all of them still have eyes that look out at you with a gaze that you know does not see you. Some of those eyes turn away, some are murky holes or wander in a void without objects, some are actually looking at something that is no longer there, while others are the pupilless eyes of Roman statues, closed faces with the air of a death mask, and because these are all frontal photographs of faces in merciless black and white, it seems as though you are walking through an endless gallery of statues in a museum of horrors, a classical antiquity where all suffering has been petrified as a lasting lament. But this is not a museum, and it is not antiquity; it is now, a real world of pain and sorrow and, above all, of courage and acceptance of the inevitable, of evil committed by humans with whom you have to share this world for the time that remains. Teiresias was the blind prophet in Homer and, if you gaze into these faces for long enough, you cannot help but think that they have looked so deeply into the human condition that, like a collective Teiresias, they can say where the evil in this world comes from, because they, more than most mortals, have endured the evil of war and its consequences.

I asked Roemers how he took these pictures, and his answer was of the same radical simplicity as the results of his method: he photographed them outside, sitting on a stool, against a black background. A black background is the same as no background at all, no distraction, a face with wrinkles in the photographer’s glare of broad daylight, with furrows leading down to a closed mouth, with stubble, with resignation to the folly of an absurd fate, with hair that the man who combs it cannot see, with a smile aimed at no one or a question without an answer, the face as the image of a life, and for each of those faces the story that has been captured forever, the story that began on the day when everybody’s war suddenly became the personal fate of the individual in the picture. And how do these things happen? First there is the threat, the leaden inevitability of two parties heading for a confrontation, no longer able to avert a calamity, a threat that dominates the entire climate: the newspapers, the debates, the futile discussions. The whole atmosphere is saturated with it, everyone knows that it is going to happen, but it is still not reality – it is already there and yet it is not. The people in these photographs have also lived through this phase, and may have experienced the fear that accompanies it. But they had no way of knowing that this threat would have such a devastating impact on their own lives that those lives could never be the same again, even after peace had returned. They would be hit by an especially individual fate within that shared fate, that single moment of the deadly explosion, the blinding flash of light, the mutilation that means this person will forever be involved with that war, and therefore with the history of that era, more so than other people. It is not at the point of defeat or victory that a war is unfathomable, it is during the phase leading up to that war, as the moment passes when the battle for life and death might still have been avoided. Everything that happens after that is described in this book, illustrated by compelling images that immediately bring to mind these lines by the Dutch poet Leo Vroman, a man who, through the absurdity of war, fled from the Nazis in the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies, only to end up in Japanese captivity for four years:

                                               Come at night and tell me why
                                               there will not be another war,
                                               tell me a hundred times or more
                                               and each time I will cry.


Stanza from Leo Vroman’s poem Vrede, published in Uit slaapwandelen, 1957, Querido, Amsterdam. Translated by Vroman himself in March 2012.

Cees Nooteboom (b. The Hague, 1933) has created a wide-ranging literary oeuvre since 1955, including novels, stories about travel, poems and essays. His work has been translated into dozens of different languages and received prestigious literary awards all over the world.