The Last Stand

We spoke to photographer and Terry O’Neill award winner Marc Wilson, to find out more about The Last Stand exhibition, which opens at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson on Friday, 3 May.

What was your Inspiration for the work?
Initially the project came out of a small body of work called Abandoned that I created in 2003. This project included some military locations – from these I realised the importance of the subject matter and I felt I needed to produce a piece of work about it. Many locations have been documented before in some form or another but I wanted to approach it in my own way, and in doing so not only look at the objects themselves, but their place in the shifting landscape over time. Most importantly of all, I wanted to set up a dialogue and hopefully prompt the viewer to reflect on the histories and memories associated with these places.

Like many people today, I have some connection to the two world wars. My grandfather had been in the Navy in the First World War and whilst I did have a relative flying with the RAF during WW2, the main connection was with one side of my family being caught up in the horrors unfolding in Europe. Perhaps, in some ways, this project is my response to that.

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What has been your favourite location to capture?
I’ve been asked that a few times and it’s so hard to answer. I love the process of photography and I have enjoyed the experience of the journeys and taking pictures at these locations where the landscapes are quite breathtaking. But then at the same time, whilst I strive to produce visually beautiful images, the subject matter at these locations is so dark that the ‘enjoyable’ elements pale away. An odd feeling really.

As for a ‘favourite’ to photograph, the dunes at Newburgh, north of Aberdeen, come to mind. I was 600 miles away from home, up at 4am, and I had to climb out of the hotel bar window as the front door was locked. It was a wonderful hour’s walk through the dunes in the rising light and sea mist before I was greeted with the scene you see in the images in the exhibition. It was then a slow walk back along the beach as the sea mist slowly melted away, back to the hotel for breakfast and an explanation for the open bar window!

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What was the hardest image to capture?
The hardest, physically, was probably the image at the Dengie peninsula in Essex. It was another 4am start, followed by a one-hour cycle to the location, over a muddy grass levee in the rain, with my large format camera, tripod and umbrella on my back. I then stood in the rain for an hour waiting for it to stop, which it did eventually. I set up, shot the image and then cycled back with heavier legs and over muddier grass. The trip to Northern France and Belgium was also hard with 10 days of ferry journeys, late afternoon recces, 4am starts and daytime driving to the next location, with evenings of unloading and loading darkslides in neon motels, and four trips up and down the northern coast chasing the light.

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What has it been like to photograph such poignant locations?
I photographed in the South West of England – this location had been recced on a previous visit and so I knew the time of day, direction, amount of sun and height of the tides I needed for the shot.

Yet still this image required over 280 miles and five hours of driving, followed by three hours in place, with the camera set up, waiting for the perfect combination of light and tides.

The image you will see in the exhibition was made at Torcross, nearby Slapton Sands. Some of you may be familiar with the military history of this location but for those that are not, it was used as a training ground for the D-Day landings due to its similarity to the coastline and conditions in Normandy, France. The local villages had all been emptied of the residents and the troops had moved in.

In April 1944, during Exercise Tiger, the three-mile-long convoy of vessels on their way to the exercises was attacked by nine German torpedo boats.  Two tank-landing ships were sunk, with the loss of 749 American servicemen. Over 1,000 lives were lost during the exercise.

It is a beautiful and peaceful place, and as I now stand in these locations, I am so engrossed in the photographic process that I can at times forget these histories. As soon as I stop though, and begin to pack away the camera, they all flood in, these mass casualties of war, associated with the histories and memories of these sites I am photographing. My imagination though can only scratch at the surface of the reality of these events.

For more information about The Last Stand, visit our website.

Do you have a place, which holds memories that has now been abandoned or destroyed? Are you a serving soldier that has left behind a base you called home whilst serving abroad? Did you document these places at the time or now they are gone? If so, we would love you to share them with us online. Tweet us at @Royal_Armouries using #LostLocations or post on our facebook page.