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Afghanistan: A War Artist’s Blog

by Derek Eland

‘Diary Room’, Patrol Base Kalang, Afghanistan (all images 2011)

When I was first given the chance to become a war artist in Afghanistan it was a question of how to bring a new perspective to the conflict, one which is dominated by the relentless toll of deaths and the hyper-reality of the head-cam video and kill TV.

I wanted to get inside the heads of soldiers in this war zone – what it feels like to be human in this demanding place. I’d been working in the UK on a number of socially engaged art projects creating ‘Diary Rooms’ on location and then re-contextualising the resulting work in galleries. I like the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, particularly his work Are you happy? (1981), and Yoko Ono’s My Mommy Is Beautiful (2004) which I’d come across at art college, and this helped reinforce my thinking.

In a digital age, I decided to collect handwritten accounts there and then at the front line. I didn’t want stories written after the event: I was interested in honest, raw and immediate accounts. I decided to ask everyone I met in on the front line in Afghanistan, Afghans as well as Westerners, to write a postcard about their experiences and thoughts. These stories would be created using three ‘Diary Rooms’ on the front line.

Prior to going out to Afghanistan however I had a series of challenging conversations and meetings with soldiers and officers in units I was due to be embedded with. Some of these people were sceptical about asking soldiers for their stories and nervous about what would be said: would the comments be insidious, destructive and ultimately undermine morale? I too was worried that the soldiers would only write what they thought others wanted them to say or that they would not write anything at all.

On the ground in Afghanistan a few months later things turned out to be quite different to what I’d expected. In theory I would set up three ‘Diary Rooms’ in front line Patrol Bases and engage with the people there and ask them to write their stories. I planned to use coloured postcards as I wanted to introduce some element of choice in the process and also to produce an end result which was visually colourful and a contrast to the dark stories which I expected to emerge.

The reality was that the soldiers, both the Western and Afghan, were dotted around the landscape in small Check Points and remote locations instead of being in one central location. In order to engage with soldiers and get the stories I would need to go to them. On day two in Helmand I left the relatively safe confines of the wire to patrol out to these remote locations. It was at this point that I realized that my insurance policy didn’t cover me anymore.

Irish Guardsman, writing their stories by torchlight, Afghanistan

The second harsh reality was that the three locations chosen for the ‘Diary Rooms’ were selected because they were the most ‘kinetic’. This is military speak for places where ‘contacts’ with the Taliban, shootings and bombings, were most common. In a way this made sense as the soldiers and interpreters I met would have more intense stories to tell. For me personally I felt even more exposed in my ‘press corps blue’ helmet and body armour. Jokingly the soldiers said they were very happy for me to join them on patrol as I stood out much more than they did. On day three I was with a foot patrol which came across an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It was ‘safely’ detonated with a huge explosion, similar to a device which had killed a soldier from the same unit a few weeks previously.

What this all meant for me though was that I was immediately on the same level as the soldiers – I patrolled with them, slept in these remote places and took the same risks. As an artist and outsider I was immediately on the same level and able to ask soldiers for their stories. Quite often when I turned up in these remote locations they would initially ask where my easel and paints were. They thought it was hilarious when they found that they were helping me by writing their stories on postcards but they quickly engaged with the project and got on with it.

Why then did the soldiers write their stories so readily? I would give them a relatively short time to write them, to ensure they were not too reflective and also because I had only a limited time on the ground in some of these places. I soon realized that the stories were startlingly honest and insightful. They were not things they would tell their families back home because it would worry them too much. Equally, they were things that the soldiers wouldn’t tell each other because they were often highly personal and they might betray weakness. They often referred to two wars, the one involving bombs and bullets and the other ‘going on in a soldiers head when the fighting stops’. They ranged from the remarkable to the mundane, the extraordinary to the everyday.

Postcard written by a Royal Irish Ranger

I worked with paratroopers who were guarding and clearing an empty village of IEDs to enable Afghan families to move back into their homes. These paratroopers described with pride what it was like to help bring normality back to the lives of local families.

Note written by a paratrooper

I was surprised that when soldiers were off duty in these remote places they relaxed by watching war films and things like 24. For them it was a complete immersion, all or nothing, and often soldiers described the worst part of the tour being when they were home in the UK on leave and they heard about a mate who was injured. I was with a Royal Irish unit in a small location which had been involved in shootings and bombings with the Taliban 87 times in three months. As I filmed these soldiers relaxing and chatting about life back in the UK a patrol from the same regiment was attacked a mile or so away. While this attack was being reported live on the radio a soldier was watching Jack Bauer shooting ‘bad guys’ on an episode of 24. Quite surreal.

I was constantly moving in and out of the main Camp Bastion by helicopter as I transited between front line locations. This meant a certain amount of rest but it also meant I constantly had to steel myself to go back to the front line. I kept a personal diary of my time in Afghanistan and looking back at my notes I see that the times in Camp Bastion were the most emotional for me as I reflected and prepared to go back to the front.

What was the end result? The ‘Diary Room’ walls filled up, hundreds of stories were written, mostly on the coloured cards, but sometimes on scraps of paper, cardboard ripped from ration boxes or scribbled on blank medical forms. One soldier took an empty packet of semolina and wrote ‘Yummy’ on the side. A female medic wrote what it was like to treat her first casualties and save their lives, a chef described cooking and distributing Christmas dinner to hundreds of soldiers scattered about the front line, a bomb disposal expert described what it felt like to go to Afghanistan as a battle casualty replacement for someone who had been injured. Some of those who wrote stories went on to be killed and seriously wounded. In these cases the families concerned have given permission for the stories to be exhibited.

Overall the response I got was staggering and included excerpts such as:

‘Your mind clicks into a gear that you never knew you had, and you bark orders like your life depends on it … and GUESS WHAT: IT DOES!’

‘My abiding memory of Afghanistan? … it will be a humble local farmer who one day took me by surprise by asking after my family. ‘You are far from home. You must miss you family very much. We are very grateful.’

‘The young soldier was brought to me following an IED blast…I didn’t need to ask more questions – his eyes told the whole story. As wide as possible and conveying such a sense of bewilderment, uncertainty and terror that I shall never forget them.’

‘I’m going to write about the day to day struggle of being away … what your girlfriend was wearing last time you saw her, what she did, said, what she smelt like, what she will look like and if anything will have changed while you have been away and if you will put up with the changes when you get back … if you are close to someone that is away out here know that you will always be in their minds because there are two wars being fought, one which is publicised and one which goes on in a soldiers head when everything goes quiet….’

Card written by an Irish Guardsman

The Diary Rooms became a focal point for those in the Patrol Bases and for those who passed through. As stories were read, others added their own. An officer wrote about how difficult it was to have a man’s life in his hands. Others wrote in reply about what an honour it was to be led by this officer. Afghan soldiers and civilian interpreters, British and many other nationalities took part and most were happy to put their names to their stories.

What evolved became an enormous collective self-portrait. Their stories. For me the process of the engagement and the documentation of the soldiers was a key part of the project. I continually filmed and photographed the soldiers at work and at rest. When I was in a Patrol Base in the northern part of Helmand we were attacked from a number of insurgent locations one night. I noticed in all these situations where I filmed and photographed the soldiers that they fought with the same intensity with which they wrote.

British paratroopers write their stories, Afghanistan

At the end of the month I revisited each front line location and recorded and carefully removed each card from the ‘Diary Room’ walls. Before leaving Afghanistan each card was read by the military and security cleared but not censored. The names of the injured were blacked out in line with military policy. I then took the hundreds of cards back to the UK strapped inside my jacket. The cards were like treasures and I wasn’t going to let them out of my sight.

The ‘Diary Rooms’ have been re-created as an installation at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, until March 2013.

Covered with sand and weather stained, the cards are laid out as they were in Afghanistan, supported by photographs and film from the project. The Gallery has been bowled over by the response to the installation, even going as far as providing tissues for visitors. In the gallery space there is also a wall for visitors to write a postcard about their own reaction. Hundreds of these cards have been written to date and the gallery is rapidly running out of space. After March 2013 the exhibition will tour to other galleries in the UK and abroad.

The stories are currently being published in a blog, one story a day for a year.

About the author

  • Derek Eland's photo

    Derek Eland is a British artist whose work is about what it feels like to be human in stressful and demanding situations. In 2011 he was an official war artist in Afghanistan.