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Through my photographic practice I reflect on how the medium of photography, historically associated with the representation of reality, can be employed to address personal and cultural memories. I explore how the artist’s personal and cultural memory becomes interwoven with the live encounter and a particular landscape, and I want to demonstrate how this experience can operate within the process of making the work and also as part of the final artwork itself.  As a German national I have grown up close to the Dutch border in Germany, adjacent to large woodland, my personal childhood memories are located within specific woodland and borderland territory. My personal memories are interlinked with fairy-tale stories and informed by knowledge of atrocities and tragedies resulting from wars and forms of conflict held collectively in a European psyche.

For this work I will bring the two aspects of my practice almost physically together – the subject of the woodland and the cultural memory associated to WWI + II. 

As part of the memory I want to use a structural element of the former ammunition factory in Chilwell, Nottingham. The factory, kept top-secret at the time, was the country’s most productive shell filling factory during WWI. In order to maintain this status, the explosion in July 1918, when 134 people died and 250 were injured, was not reported on in detail. Information made available to the public about the extent of this devastating tragedy was kept to a bare minimum and the facts of the extent even falsified by reducing the number of death to be 60. A veil of silence hung over the fact that body parts were found in the surrounding area and that the bodies were buried in a mass grave near by without being named. Suggestions of sabotage being the cause of the explosions have been voiced and investigations have been carried out, but according to the BBC program ‘Inside Out’, reports were never made public and “even today it seems that the truth is far from clear.” The only structural element that is left today of the factory itself, are the wooden blocks, which formed the floor of the former factory. 10,000 people worked in the shell filling factory, most of them were women, christened Canary girls because the chemicals some of them handled turned their skin yellow and their hair green. Day in day out they walked on the floor made of the wooden blocks, which itself will have absorbed the chemicals used for the ammunition as well as the oils for the machinery used and the blood shed as the result of the explosion. Working while standing/walking on these wooden blocks, the women produced most of the shells used in the battle of the Somme, including the fierce fighting over High Wood/Bois des Fourcaux.[1]

High Wood is not very large but was of great importance during the Battle of the Somme and remains to this day inaccessible. It is believed that at least 8,000 German and British soldiers lost their lives as results of the battles fought in this woodland. Bodies of dead soldiers - a large number possibly killed by the shells produced in Chilwell - were used as shields, covered with earth to build up parapets; hit by shells the bodies were once again blown out of the parapets. To this day High Wood remains mainly untouched and many of the dead, Germans and British still lie there. Due to this, one can only walk around the wood.

Using the wooden blocks from the former shell filling factory as a literal base, I will expose photographs taken of High Wood while walking around it. By placing the wooden block-photographs on the floor, leaving gaps for the viewer to walk amongst the individual blocks, indicating possible paths through High Wood which remains otherwise inaccessible, I invite the viewer for an imaginary walk through the wood.

Not being able to enter into the actual wood and recording left behind objects, a practice commonly associated with the medium of photography, presents the opportunity to create a space for the imaginary; a place for remembrance and recollection. Imagining what has happened in this woodland, being aware of the tragedies that occurred during and after ‘The Great War’, regarding WWII as a direct consequence, the work will possible produce an outer silence and an inner sorrow in the audience. The blood shed during those battles has become part of the woodland itself and High Wood is the resting place for so many British as well as German men, once at war and by now being united, resting next to each other.  Woodlands left to their own devices, without human interference, turn into places where the natural circle of life can take place, matter decomposes and new life and therefore hope is generated as a result. The photographs on the wooden blocks will therefore also represent the beauty of the woodland itself and its capacity to create new life. 

The body of work will address the importance of political events and their impact on subsequent historic developments and how this plays a significant role in the lives of individuals who are directly or non-directly affected. I aim to create a space for the viewer to engage with their own experiences and memories thereof, for questions to be asked that remain possibly unanswerable and for those to be formulated, which were considered unspeakable. To find concrete answers is not the intent; it is the recognition of the necessity for such a space to exist, which is important.


[1] High Wood is situated betweenCourcelette and Longueval in the north of France, 40km north-east of Amiens.

Published in Katja Hock