“Topography Is Fate—North African Battlefields of World War II is not a simple investigation of geography. This visual survey by the American photographer Matthew Arnold is a testament to the trials of conflict amid a desert landscape. Each image in the series goes beyond surface representation to reveal elements of a very personal geography, formed by lived experiences grounded in nature, culture, and history.1 Motivated by the gap between the stories of World War II servicemen as recounted in military histories and the surviving wartime maps of North Africa, Arnold ventured into the desert to visualize the environment of war. His resulting images simultaneously capture austere landscapes and serve as visual documents of the North African campaign; forming alternating threads of meaning that contribute to the overall richness of the project.” (Excerpt from Matthew Arnold Gallery Kit 2014)
I had the pleasure of meeting with photographer, Matthew Arnold, to talk about his experiences while in North Africa. His love of the landscape and of history influenced his latest work. The following is a candid account of the obstacles and successes he encountered while capturing the images for his new book:
“In 2008 I traveled to Egypt to photograph a friend’s wedding in Egypt and I ended up traveling around the desert for a while and fell in love with its sand, wind and silence. It was the first time that I actually experienced the desert and so this project came about from wanting to return, specifically to North Africa, and photograph the desert; though I wanted to create this work with humanity and an historical context.
A few months after his return from Egypt he was talking with a friend about the desert and he [recommended] a new book he was reading, An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. I started reading this book about the American invasion of North Africa at the beginning of World War II. Once I started reading, I knew that this was the project as this had never been documented. North Africa had never been documented in this way, photographically.
The approach of the project is meant to be historical as well as conceptual, with the photographs of the North African battlefields presented, similar to the New Topographic photographers of previous generations, in an anonymous and neutral tone of voice. The images are taken in daylight, without complexity, portraying the peaceful quietness of the desert or grassland to allow viewers to fill in that negative space with their own visualization of the war.
I began researching the war and the battles. During my research I also came across, Steve Hamilton, an Englishman who had done lots of research himself and had lots of battle maps to reference. With our maps and outline of the project, over the course of six months, we put together a plan of what we would accomplish, [given] the tumult in the region at the time. My project was to be shot unfortunately, during the revolutions of North Africa in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. I came in at about 10 months after each of the county’s revolutions had begun. There was still lots of tension on the ground in the region. In Tunisia hotels were burnt the day before we were to stay because they belonged to the family of the ruling party and the protesters would burn property that belonged to them; to get their revenge. We were continually dealing with that and with avoiding protests in general. In Libya we were always watched closely and at one point were taken from a check point to the local militia headquarters where were held for 3 hours and questioned with about 15 ragtag militia members in the room because someone believed we were foreign intelligence. In the end we were let go after we learned our visa was not passed up the chain of command during the chaos at the checkpoint.
There were lots of logistical and political hurdles to cross but taking them one by one and day to day in the end things are accomplished and I was able to capture the vast majority of the images and battlefields that I set out to photograph.”
For this series Matthew used the Mamiya DM System which he was very pleased with, especially with regard to their tech support. They encountered multiple sandstorms during their travels and regardless of the care they took to protect their equipment sand inevitably made its way into the body of the camera. Mamiya was wonderful in walking Matthew over the phone from Libya through the process of cleaning every bit of the camera… twice. Fearful that he would need to cancel his trip only one week in because of this setback, Matthew and Mamiya tech support did everything they could to get the system running. Luckily, no sooner did Matthew hang up the phone, the system made the most beautiful sound he had ever heard as the mirror dropped. Thankfully the project resumed without any further delays and the result is a fantastic book which is available in New York City at HERE and online HERE.