One of the most interesting aspects of photography for me is using my camera to tell stories in a way that deeply involves the observer. As an example, we were in Normandy recently for a couple of days for a friend’s wedding. We hadn’t intended to take cameras other than for snapshots of the wedding and in any case the weather seemed far from perfect for photography. However, in between festivities we had some free time and since the East coast of Normandy is tightly entwined with significant historical events involving its beautiful beaches we felt we should go, rain or not. Naturally the cameras came too.
As it turned out the stormy weather proved perfect to capture the emotion of the place as we stumbled on the less well visited memorial to General LeClerc at the tiny hamlet of St. Martin De Varville on Utah Beach.
It is far quieter than the main visitor sites further down the coast commemorating the American landings but arguably more personal to the local Normandy people on whose soils the memorial stands, as the information plaque nearby explains.
“On August 1st. 1944, Saint Marin de Varreville saw the return on French soil of the 2nd Armoured Division of the famous Leclerc Division… with these men’s great courage and honour, France could again find its dignity.”
As I wandered alone along the beautiful surrounding Normandy beaches and the flat salt marshes I tried to imagine what it must have been like for an 18-year-old soldier during those days in June 1944 just trying to survive. I tried to capture the sense of something bigger than just ‘the moment’, something more elemental that would inspire the observer to reflect on those times, without using the usual war material subject matter.
There wasn’t much time available and we had to get what we could, but one of my favourite shots isn’t actually of the famous Normandy beaches. It was of a lonely tree being tossed by the wind half way across the coastal marshes.
It’s not a perfect shot by any means as we were blocking the tiny lane with our car and had seconds before the heavens opened, but I’m happy enough with it.
I was pleased to see that the French have not only ensured that the memorials of the recent conflict are maintained but are treasured. The air of respect and quiet dignity was humbling.
They have also left a lot of the wreckage in place, so a visitor can see and walk through the ruined gun emplacements without either making them tourist attractions or derelict. They are cleaned, maintained in a safe condition and then left alone in silent memorial to momentous events.
There’s a lot to think about and these places have a feel about them that encourages sitting down alone on the sand dunes and gazing out to sea contemplating past events.
It is far from a gloomy place however. Dramatic it may be when the storm clouds gather but it doesn’t take much effort to find the brightly painted holiday houses that line the beach in Ravenoville inside which the ‘tourists’ watch and wait for the sun to reappear!
This is a very French place and a happy place despite the ruins giving constant reminder of the traumatic events of the past. Everyone seems happy and content. There is such a ‘laid back’ air to the place and the people that makes it a such great place to visit. It’s a quiet peaceful place where French people (and other nationalities) come to have fun, not dwell on the past.
I suppose that’s the story I tried to tell behind the images I took. I tried to capture the enormous skies and vast empty beaches but also show how peaceful and happy this beautiful part of France is now.
By the way, the sun shone for the wedding reception and, as is often the case in this area, hospitality dictated that the locally made Calvados flowed freely.
It goes without saying the next time we go back to Normandy we’ll plan for a longer visit so we can try to capture more of the special atmosphere of this wonderful part of France. There are so many more stories to be told here.