On a drizzly Armistice Day, one hundred years after the start of the First World War, I visited Stills Gallery on Cockburn Street to review a photography exhibition focused on the execution of deserters from 1914-1918. With remembrance at the forefront of public consciousness this week, the theme is deeply poignant. The exhibition, Shot at Dawn, depicts the places where soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion. With her locations, Mathews aimed to find the closest place to where the execution happened, her eerie photographs are of either holding cells or bleak landscapes. In the 1990s when the files on soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion were made public, it was revealed that over one thousand British soldiers had been executed. In the wake of the First World War pardons have been granted as more was understood about the effects of shell shock. Mathews’ exhibition respectfully chronicles the locations where these men died.
With the knowledge of the circumstances of these photographs, the exhibition as a whole carries an uneasy atmosphere. Stills Gallery is an apt blank canvas for the austerity of this exhibition; it is devoid of all decoration with its concrete floors and white walls. Each photograph is almost unemotionally named with the soldier’s name, the time of death, the date and the location.
The photographs offer contrasting scenes of urbanity, empty fields and the inside of cells. What is particularly striking is how change has affected some areas in one hundred years, while others remain the same. Among the juxtaposing photographs were some particularly arresting ones, such as the photograph entitled, ‘Second Lieutenant Eric Skeffington Poole 7:25 / 10.12.1916, Town Hall (prison cell), Poperinge, West-Vlaanderen’. It is simply a wall of a prison cell, which has been scrawled and scratched into by numerous hands. The photograph begs the viewer to inch closer, to try and read what these desperate men have written in their last hours. This photograph, unlike a picture of a field has a stronger sense of humanity, as the hopelessness need not be imagined, it is written for all to see. Another particularly haunting image: ‘Private Joseph Byers, Private Andrew Evans, Time unknown / 6.12.1915, Private George E. Collins 7:30 / 15.2.1915, Six Farm, Loker, West Vlaanderen’, is a photograph of a single tree alone in a field. With this image Mathews is successful in the creation of moving photography from a site, the use of the single tree evoking the image of the solitary, vulnerable man about to be shot.
Shot at Dawn is a strangely powerful exhibition, it manages to retain respect and dignity for the soldiers. The sites are portrayed with solemnity, which in the wake of the latest Sainsburys advert, is something we surely should remember when remembering those who died in the First World War.