The position of women during any war is always a point of contention. Age-old concepts of masculinity, pride, and the military combine to make it an incredibly difficult environment for women to participate in in the same manner as their male counterparts. And while the frontlines are now peopled with women, it only takes looking at Trump’s recent restriction on transgender American citizens pursuing military careers. War is for Odysseus, culture tells us, not Penelope.
It is through alternative methods that women find themselves involved in war. At an exhibition titled, ‘No Man’s Land’, running at the Impressions Gallery in Centenary Square, Bradford, a certain niche of women during war are being celebrated: the photographers. Six photographers – three who worked during the First World War, and three modern professionals – are displaying their work to the public until December 30th.
Mari Chisholm and Florence Farmborough used photography as an addition to their full-time jobs; Mari was an ambulance driver, and Florence a nurse, while Olive Edis pursued her photography as an official war photographer. Edis’s work is, given her position, much cleaner and prepared than her two contemporaries, but it is the former two’s work where the truly striking images of the Great War are to be found. Farmborough’s images cast no favourable gaze on anything they captured. Their starkness is pure documentary.
Alongside these are the modern women working as photographers in modern warzones. Alison Baskerville, Chloe Dewe Mathews and Dawn Cole, and their perspectives and styles vary wildly. Baskerville’s shots are those of someone who has experienced the military herself, and casts an introspective eye over the women currently serving around the world. Cole, on the other hand, presents her work at a contrasting end of the scale. Her photography straddles both the old and the new, using both the digital and the traditional to produce work inspired by family archives. Mathews finds herself somewhere between these two artists, using photography to present to us contemporary images of sites where British and French deserters were executed during the First World War.
What the exhibition demonstrates is something perhaps not recognised enough: it reminds us of the wider spectrum of contributions made by women during times of war, but it also bridges a gap between conflicts, and the images that come home to us from France, Russia, Afghanistan, wherever it is that combat is taking lives.