Interview: Chloe Dewe Mathews discusses new exhibition Shot At Dawn

Series of photographs marking the precise locations WW1 deserters were executed at comes to Edinburgh

In the autumn of 2012, Chloe Dewe Mathews was commissioned by Oxford University to make a new series of work to mark the 100 year anniversary of WWI. ‘At first I was hesitant about taking on such an enormous subject,’ explains Mathews. ‘So I decided to go over to the battlefields for a research trip and if I came back with an idea worth pursuing, I would take the commission.’ It was during this initial research trip that Mathews learned about the soldiers who were shot at dawn, executed for cowardice and desertion by their own side. ‘I was shocked,’ she says. ‘It was a subplot of the war that I had previously known nothing about.’

Working with academics, military experts, museum curators, local historians and battlefield guides in four different countries, Mathews started to research the execution sites that she would eventually photograph for the project Shot at Dawn, currently on display at Stills Gallery and published in a book by Ivorypress in July this year. ‘It was extremely important to pinpoint the precise locations where each man was executed,’ describes Mathews. ‘It took months of research, looking through military documents, medical correspondence, personal letters, monastery diaries and aerial photographs of the time.’

The stories of those who were shot for cowardice during WWI remains one that is rarely told, and it has taken 100 years for a proper visual record of the sites to be developed. While researching the project, Mathews was surprised that even the experts in the field had a somewhat limited understanding of the locations where these soldiers died. ‘Although many of [the experts] have dedicated their lives to researching the subject, none have comprehensively visited all sites of execution,’ says Mathews. ‘I was also struck by the fact that very few local people I talked to ever knew the traumatic history of these ordinary-looking places.’

Upon the initial encounter, the very ordinariness of the scenes, such as the facades of churches and quiet country landscapes, feels incongruous to the story Mathews seeks to tell. It’s as though the horror of the event has been eroded in the passage of time, but it soon emerges in the nuanced details of otherwise everyday photographs. ‘When I came across a wide open field, there was often a slope in the land and I had been told to look out for this as the place where an execution would have happened; the slope behind the soldier would absorb the bullets to prevent more damage,’ explains Mathews.

The show comprises 23 photographs and Mathews has titled each one with the names of the men who were killed and the date and time that the execution occurred. Each image was photographed at this time, adding further poignancy to the tragic photographic memorial she has created. The way the photographs have been carefully framed and composed by the artist also evokes the horror of the execution: ‘The photographs reflect the viewpoint of the firing squad, mostly looking out towards where the execution would have happened and occasionally looking down towards the ground where the soldier would have stood,’ Mathews says.

Out of images devoid of people, Mathews sensitively etches the ghosts of soldiers who had been written out of history. ‘The absence of humans is glaringly apparent. Whether a slag-heap, back of a primary school, churchyard, town abattoir or half-kempt hedgerow, these places have been altered by a traumatic human event,’ she says. ‘By photographing the empty landscapes, I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.’

Shot at Dawn, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 25 Jan.

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