MARK SOMERVILLE - Photographer
'Arctic Star Medal - A Public Commission'
These portraits are selected from a Wiltshire Council commission in partnership with Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and the Heritage Lottery Fund to photograph the 33 remaining Wiltshire based recipients of the Arctic Star medal. The men were conscripted or volunteered to serve as Merchant Seamen on the Atlantic Convoys during WWII. Most were in their late teens at the time and endured great hardships in their day to day lives at sea whilst being under constant threat. Post War, most returned to their civilian lives and in 2013 those remaining were at last recognised by the UK Government for their Wartime contribution with this prestigious medal. Via this project many of them, through an oral historian, felt able for the first time to talk about their experiences.
My brief for these photographs was to seek to honour their past whilst portraying them with dignity and pride in their current domestic environments.
Execution of the brief
Many of these Gentlemen found it hard to revisit their wartime experiences and it was decided early on that I would take the pictures after the interviews had been conducted by the historian on the project so that I would have some knowledge of their lives prior to visiting them. This made it easier to start a conversation and put them at their ease. Nevertheless, I am still entering someone’s private space, setting up lighting and fiddling around with cameras. I was mindful of how intimidating that can be and sought not to be too intrusive. Given the age of the sitters and taking into account any physical limitations, I decided to get as great a range of set ups as possible - I really didn’t want a collection of images of 90 year old Gentlemen merely sitting in their favourite chairs. I wanted to capture the inividual personalities of the sitters
Inevitably, as is the case with most portraits I’ve taken, the winning shots come right at the end of the session or even after you have said “that’s the final shot”. It’s well worth shooting a few more frames when the sitter thinks it’s all over and is relaxed.
Initially the intention for this collection of images together with the oral testaments was for archival and educational purposes. Wiltshire County Council wanted an audio visual presentation to be made available to schools and to add to their own archive collection at Chippenham. However, we are now looking at the possibilities of broadening this with an exhibition and the printing of some of the contributors’ words and images in book form.
This has been a fascinating project to be part of. I have met some terrific old Veterans and learnt a lot about their time at sea. The golden rules of good portraiture still hold true: Establish a rapport with your subject, then listen to what they have to say and how they want their picture to look. Most importantly, be patient and you will get the desired result.