An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.