What a soldier carries

Photographer Thom Atkinson’s latest series, Soldiers’ Inventories, records the different kinds of military kit, including clothing, weapons and provisions, used by soldiers from the Battle of Hastings to today

Mounted Knight, Siege of Jerusalem, 1244

Photographer Thom Atkinson’s latest series, Soldiers’ Inventories, records the different kinds of military kit, including clothing, weapons and provisions, used by soldiers from the Battle of Hastings to today…

The project appeared in the Saturday Telegraph magazine earlier this month (the article is here) and is part of a continuing body of work of Atkinson’s that looks at how conflict is represented in British culture, with a focus on the mythologies that surround warfare.

Huscarl, Battle of Hastings, 1066

“With the exception of the last picture, which I did with the Royal Engineers, the kits were all provided by members of re-enactment and living history groups,” Atkinson says of the project.

“They’re people with a lot of knowledge but also the experience of wearing and using the equipment. They also have an interest in objects beyond the army issue items – personal effects and other little details, which bring a human element to the project.”

Each photograph reflects a particular period of British history and Atkinson’s initial research invoved trying to identify the type of soldier which might typify the time. “Often this decision was based on legend,” he says. “When I think of the Falklands War, I think of a famous photograph of a column of Royal Marines with a Union flag, so this was the starting point for that picture.”

Fighting Archer, Battle of Agincourt, 1415

“The next step was to find a group who re-enacted the Falklands and wanted to be involved. In the case of the Falklands picture [shown second from bottom of post], I worked with a man called Chris Gosling. We discussed together which soldier was the right one to portray for the conflict in question and made various decisions about equipment bearing in mind developments between the preceding and following pictures in the series.”

Yorkist Man at Arms, Battle of Bosworth, 1485

The project follows on from his series of images of bombed-out model buildings, Airfix Ruins, but the new approach seems less about how war is represented and instead looks more at the direct experience of it; the physicality of things that have been used or worn by serving soldiers.

“It does look more at the experience of conflict,” he says. “But on another level it looks at British mythology again – our history almost seems to be a list of battles and they’re very emotive events. I think that’s partly why the project has been received in the way it has.”

New Model Army Musketeer, Battle of Naseby, 1645

“The objects are a focus and they each represent an experience. They’re relics of British history in a way. I feel it more now that the project is finished – at the time you’re sometimes too involved and your mind is too occupied with the task – but there is something incredible about feeling the weight of a First World War rifle or hearing the sound of a tin of tobacco snapping open; it just brings you a little bit closer to the past. It’s powerful – we’ve all got relatives who experienced these things.”

Private Soldier, Battle of Waterloo, 1815

“The most affecting thing was meeting the soldiers who helped me with the Afghanistan picture [shown bottom of post]. Up until then it all seemed less real, but meeting them was like meeting all of the different historical soldiers I’d been imagining. I suddenly felt it all connecting up and it became much more real.”

In terms of art directing the shoot and laying out the objects, Atkinson says each process was like “a six-hour Teris game. Each one was a puzzle which we’d gradually solve.”

Private Soldier, Battle of the Somme, 1916

“Objects are generally arranged illustratively,” he continues. “Objects which relate to one another are adjacent and, as far as I could, I tried to arrange them in a way that explained them. I really wanted to to show everything, every last object.”

In this context (and from picture to picture) the weapons change with the emergence of new technologies, but also stay the same – the ‘job’ they are supposed to do is effectively the same over the centuries. And this makes the collections all the more affecting. However, also of note are the objects which are very human and suggest the kit belongs to an individual: in several of the images there are games or dice, cards, notes, sweets etc.

Lance Corporal, Parachute Brigade, Battle of Arnhem, 1944

“One of my favourite things is that every picture has a spoon,” says Atkinson. “That really amazes me. It makes 1,000 years seem a much shorter time span.

“Water carriers recur as does the need to make fire. Cloaks develop into ‘great coats’ and then blankets and sleeping bags. Body armour is interesting because it phases out in favour of lightness and manoeuvrability, but it reappears in the Afghanistan picture in the form of a Kevlar vest.

“As you say, entertainment and small comforts are in all of the pictures. It seems to me that while the technology of warfare changes dramatically, the soldier using it is much the same, certainly physically but perhaps also psychologically – objects like pipes and tobacco, or games and entertainment would suggest so.”

Royal Marine Commando, Falklands Conflict, 1982

Examining the notion of conflict is an ongoing concern for Atkinson. “A few years ago I realised that I wanted to make work about Britain and it’s war mythology,” he says. “It sounds a bit grand, but I think it’s something very subconscious and profound – it felt very important to go with it.

“Since then I’ve been working on two much bigger, long term projects, which concern these things – Britain, war, myth, the landscape and how much these things matter to us. To me, these projects are the most important things I’ve ever tried to make. I hope one day that they will be books.”

Close Support Sapper, Royal Engineers, Helmand Province, 2014

“Also I decided that I wanted to move my folio and editorial work more in line with these bigger projects. I wanted it all to fit together and I found it was full of shorter, simpler project ideas which I wanted to follow up. Soldiers’ Inventories is one result. I like the idea that nothing is wasted – every folio project helps towards the art projects I’m working on. But [with Solderis’ Inventories], I’d like to place it with some archives and museums if I can.”

For larger versions of the images shown above, view the full Soldiers’ Inventories collection on Atkinson’s site at thomatkinson.com. Atkinson is represented by Black Dog.

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