“We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow”. I read these words for the first time on Friday 11th. Not having grown up here I’m unfamiliar with “In Flanders Fields”. The quote is inscribed on the first tablet at the Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial. It’s a structure that has beguiled me as I drive past on Memorial Drive but I only very recently visited it for the first time. It is, in the true sense of the adjective, an awesome sight with dignity and power befitting such a weighty role.
It’s been weighing on my mind for some time now that I ought to do something at the memorial. I have very little history of personal work, which for me is fine as most of my day job commissions are pretty darn personal anyway. However the itch has been there for a while but the details haven’t been clear. I haven’t even been sure whether I wanted to shoot video or stills.
At the beginning of the month I shot some portraits at the Memorial for the new Mount Royal University Military Memorial Bursary and discovered that on top of everything else the memorial is an extraordinary location for portraiture. And so for the first time in my life I decided to come to a military memorial at 11:11 on November 11th, 2011. My plan was deliberately simple – truck up with a bit of gear and hope to find a veteran to pose for me. In my mind the face was of course old, wrinkly and white. This memorial wasn’t part of the day’s big events so I didn’t even know if there’d be anyone around.
As it turned out there was a little crowd and a small detachment of soldiers marking silent remembrance. The mood was quite magical. I lack the words to describe it properly but there was what I can only describe as a beautiful solemnity in the air. No old faces though. So I did what you do when you don’t know what to do and just started shooting…
Remembering the Fallen at Calgary Soldiers' Memorial
The soldiers were in place on the memorial and it didn’t seem appropriate to climb up and join them so now on top of having no subject I couldn’t even get in position to shoot the way I wanted to based on my previous visit. And I guess that’s what opportunity looks like: eventually I realised that the young Asian-Canadian standing at attention right there in front of me presented the perfect subject for my shot. For as much as Remembrance Day is about honouring the fallen, you must also take a moment to salute the courage of those who put themselves in harm’s way today. And because I couldn’t get close enough but wanted still to use my 45mm Tilt Shift lens the complete memorial became an integral part of the image.
I stuck around, still hoping a crusty vet would drop by (the Legion’s not far away), and picked up the detail shots I needed for the composite. I knew I wanted to create a rich piece that layered in names from the memorial but didn’t expect to find the In Flanders Fields quote. It’s perfect. Not that that’s news to most of you but it was a great discovery for me.
So this year’s Rembrance Day was certainly one I will not forget. I think this Memorial will be a part of my life, professionally and personally, for a long time to come. I’m inspired to create more personal work and reminded that as a creative person it’s always best to approach things with an open mind and eyes that are open to the opportunity in front of me.
Military Memorial Bursary recipient Michelle Cahoon, at the Calgary Soldier's Memorial.