A photo series by photographer Robert Wilson, documenting the homecoming preparations and final withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, has been displayed on 59 billboards and bus stops in a site-specific exhibition across England and Scotland.
Wilson first visited Afghanistan in 2008, travelling to Helmand to document British forces on the front line, with the resulting images being published as a book (Helmand, Jonathan Cape, 2008). As a commercial photographer, commissioned mainly for editorial and advertising projects, this was a step away from familiar subjects. He then became an official “war artist” after being invited to Afghanistan by the Commander of the forces in Helmand.
Returning to the site in April this year, his aim was to photograph the troops’ final tour of duty, and the process of withdrawal from Camp Bastion in Helmand and other camps in Kabul.
After getting to know the troops, Wilson aimed to somehow capture, as he describes it, their “thousand-yard stare” – a certain expression on their “bedraggled” and exhausted faces, having seen images that will never leave them.
The stright on portraits are amongst the strongest in the series. There’s something about the look in their eyes, those dusty creases, the sunburn and the freckles – the intensity of these close-up shots tells just a snippet of a much greater story of conflict.
The location of each of the billboards was determined by biographical data gathered from the returning troops, and Wilson hopes this will mean that the outdoor exhibition becomes “both a literal and a metaphorical return home”, he says.
The large-scale portraits of the dusty, exhausted faces are stunning (see more from the original series on Wilson’s website), and the semi-abstract shots of the aircraft engine and the ammunition are particularly beautiful too.
Wilson aimed to actively engage the public in part through juxtaposing the images with familiar everyday locations, breaking down the sense of a war being ‘elsewhere’ or happening to ‘other people’, although some of work better than others. Pairings include an image of the Post Office in Camp Bastion being on display near a local Royal Mail Depot, or a makeshift church image opposite a war memorial in London.
Creating a public exhibition is surely a great way to bring the work to a wider audience and to communities who might share the effects of the troops’ homecoming. But is there something about the fact that they are appearing on billboards and bus stops as stand alone images without written explanation (and only a QR code in the corner), that could lead to a misreading of them as big and bold army recruitment ads? Perhaps that doesn’t matter if they still serve as a reminder of the conflict, and act as a temporary site of remembrance for communities locally.
Although the public exhibition lasted only a couple of weeks, and has now officially ended, some of the billboards are yet to be rebooked so keep an eye out for the images around the country, (click here for the full list of locations). A gallery show of the photographs is also on until November 30 at Gallery One and A Half, London.