Produced over the past two years, Shot at Dawn is a new body of work by the British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews that focuses on the sites at which British, French and Belgian troops were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. The project comprises images of twenty-three locations at which the soldiers were shot or held in the period leading up to their execution, and all were taken as close as possible to the precise time at which the executions occurred.
Today there seems little doubt that at the time of their offences at least some of these men were suffering from psychiatric illness brought on by the horrors of trench warfare. Indeed, there is now recognition and understanding within military institutions that psychiatric conditions can be attributed to military service, which can help to explain erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour, including conduct that could be classed as military crime.
Chloe Dewe Mathews is quite possibly the only photographer ever to have recorded the sites of military executions in such a systematic fashion. Her portraits of the missing—the officers and men who made up the firing squads as well as the individuals who were executed—are a lesson in compassion. They reshape appearance and help us to identify with others faraway in time and space.
Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Shot at Dawn premieres at Stills before embarking on a European tour through 2016.
A fully illustrated book accompanies the exhibition. Published by Ivorypress, it provides a critical analysis of the work by the celebrated writer Geoff Dyer and expert contextual essays on cowardice, desertion and psychological trauma brought on by military service by the acclaimed historians Sir Hew Strachan and Dr Helen McCartney. Copies of the publication will be available to purchase at Stills’ shop in September.
Shot at Dawn is sponsored by Genesis Imaging, one of Britain’s leading photographic laboratories, and the project has been supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund and by the British Council, Government of Flanders, John Fell OUP Research Fund and Van Houten Fund.