"The pride of being a Paratrooper after time turned to self-questioning, this turned to self-loathing and then self-hatred. I wanted to go to war in my brain, but it was not 'war' it was drug abuse. It was only when I was due to go to court over a drugs and firearms charge (the drugs were weed and speed, the firearms a few bullets kept as mementos from my army days) that I walked into a lamp post late at night and smashed my face up. I went to court a month later after healing up and was given a two-year suspended sentence. It was after standing in the dock that I realized what a mess my life was." - Stuart Griffiths, 2011
Suspend Your Belief
I first met Stuart Griffiths in 1997 when we were both students of Editorial Photography at Brighton University. I had come from working in studios and as a professional photographic printer and Stuart was just out of the army. Both of us are from working class backgrounds; both had difficult upbringings without strong male role models. In many ways chance had made us similar characters – driven and creative – but somehow our lives had taken completely different routes. Stuart had chosen to find some stability and search for some respect by enlisting in the British Army – an experience completely at odds with my beliefs and values – and I had chosen to find my place through a career in London. By the time we met both of us were on the run from the consequences of those decisions. We were both looking for a way forward and revelling in the luxury of Higher Education.
I remember clearly Stuart’s opening gambit when introducing himself, ‘I’m Griff, I’m searching for the Holy Grail’. At the time these seemed like the words of a crazy man and his wild-eyed look – think Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver – reinforced this to me and the other mainly middle class white, kids studying on the course. He was different and clearly wanted to be Robert Capa, whilst everyone else wanted to be Keith Arnatt or Helen Chadwick.
We didn’t really talk about his experience in the army, and it wasn’t until 2009 that he showed me the photographs he took on tours of Northern Ireland in the late 80s and early 90s. These are the images that make up this book, photographs taken by Stuart to keep as mementos of his time with the Paras in the same way that you would record any experience – a wedding or a holiday. They are shabby and badly made; they show the lack of training and cheap equipment that brought them into being. Stuart took them with a Canon Sureshot – a gift from his stepfather – that he kept hidden in his webbing amongst bullets, rules of engagement cards and cigarettes. As Stuart recalled to me in an interview, ‘everyone in a platoon has their place, and mine was the wacky artist’, so the photographing of the everyday experience of his colleagues was not seen as threatening, just as Stuart fulfilling his function. Along with his drawings and poetry, the act of photographing became his role, and as necessary to this tightly knit group of young men as the joker or the hero.
These photographs were not intended to be historical documents or to become an act of protest, but lifting them out of the cheap plastic mini-lab folders and publishing them in this context they could have become exactly that. An expansive essay on the nature of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland would possibly have made them easier to place as commentary and a political argument could have been constructed about them. But this would have denied the very essence of Stuart’s experience of service, which was one driven by great aspiration and ruined by severe disillusionment. These are pictures of a group of young men – most of who felt that enlisting was the only way out of difficult social circumstances – suffering from extended periods of extreme boredom punctuated by moments of severe threat. Boys in their late teens released onto the streets of a British city heavily armed, highly frustrated and unable to engage the ‘enemy’ in direct combat.
Acknowledging this as a starting point, Stuart and I embarked on an editorial collaboration. We discussed the photographs initially, talking about them in relationship to other works about Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ and comparing them to the recent rash of images made by soldiers on mobile phone cameras in the Middle East. We talked about his photographs failure to represent his experience – the pictures of barrack life; training; walking the suburban red-brick streets in full camouflage; sneaking snaps from the observation towers of the Maze are just offering an edited visual account and nothing of the emotional or psychological experience. Over time a text was developed through a process of interviews and email exchanges, which was intended to describe that which the images could not. But this text in itself became inadequate. As with all memories, time had worked on Stuart’s and his recollections were probably no closer to the truth of his experience than the images themselves. So a radical edit was imposed with a thick black marker pen. This act of censorship mirrors both the process of deciding to take, deciding to keep and deciding to include the photographs
in the edit for this book – what was not photographed, kept and chosen? – and the ‘Troubles’ themselves, those censorial procedures undertaken by all sides involved. This time though, the censorial process was purposely reversed with the innocuous deleted and the violent, unpleasant and disturbing left untouched.
The whole process of editing became an act of suspending belief in the ‘realness’ of these and other images and texts relating to traumatic events, and a reassessment of the complex relationship between photographs, memory and war.
NB. I am using the term ‘suspend your belief’ in reference to the more commonly used ‘suspend your disbelief’. This is the process of temporarily releasing your grasp on the ‘real’ in order to more thoroughly enjoy a work of fiction – a film, novel or video game. It is my assertion that, when faced with overwhelming ‘evidence’ or ‘fact’, it is wise to allow yourself a temporary suspension of belief, and to let fiction, imagination and conjecture become part of one's negotiation of the experience.