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Peterborough remembers Burma veterans

Inspired by the experiences of her own father, Wendy Aldiss photographed over 200 allied Burma Veterans in the UK and a small selection in Burma (now Myanmar) during 2015 – the year marking the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. Now, a special selection of the portraits, focusing on veterans from the local area, is going on display at St John’s Church, Peterborough (23 June-7 July). Toby Venables talked to Wendy about the exhibition, and the experience

How did you first come to be photographing veterans of the WWII Burma campaign?
I saw an excellent exhibition in London based around various conflicts, but the Burma campaign wasn’t represented, which was not unusual. But on the way home I began to get quite annoyed about that! My father was out in Burma and has talked about it over the years. At the time, he was about to be 90 – all of the people who were there were going to be 90+, and there were fewer and fewer of them – and I realised I just had to do it. With the help of the Burma Star Association I tracked down everyone I could still living in the UK and had this most fantastic year, going around meeting them all.

How did you choose to photograph them?
I photographed all of the veterans in their informal, everyday garb, in their homes. Those who wanted to also put on smart jackets, medals, perhaps their beret or bush hat, for a slightly more formal portrait. Then, if any had any memorabilia from their Burma days I also photographed that. So, for some there is a set of three images, for others two or just the one. One of the things that fascinated me was the contrast between how these people looked when they were just relaxing in their living room chatting to me, and when they put on their medals or berets. It was really ‘shoulders back’! And the difference in age – they looked suddenly younger. They all feel very keenly about the people who never came back, and I think they feel they’re representing everybody once they put those medals on.

Were they happy to talk about their experiences?
I spent maybe two hours with each one, and they were all lovely. Some were very upset when they talked about the war, while others said it was the best time of their lives. There was a whole range of responses. Most were just pleased that someone was paying them some sort of attention, because they are part of that ‘forgotten army’. There were only a couple of people who didn’t want to tell their story. Quite a lot of people hadn’t talked to their families about it – often because they thought their families weren’t interested! There were also things that people clearly felt should not be said, and some who thought they were still under the Official Secrets Act. Several said that their memories of those days were coming back stronger now that they’re older, and a few were having nightmares for the first time since. These memories are not necessarily welcome, but it was such a formative time of their lives. Of course, everyone I was meeting, when I met them, was in their 90s – a few were over 100 – but some of them had had their 18th birthdays on the troop ship going out there.

The conditions in Burma must have been challenging – malaria, monsoons…
There were huge numbers of casualties due to the terrain, disease, lack of food. We can’t imagine what it was like and I wonder if that was behind people not talking about it. How do you convey that? But the huge sense of camaraderie came across – how they looked after each other. There was one particular gentleman who was a Chindit, whose greatest fear had been getting separated from everyone else and becoming lost. Several other people echoed that fear. In the end, it had happened to him – but in fact he found it was wonderful; lots of people really appreciated how beautiful the country was. He’d set forth with the intention of finding his way back, stayed for the night by a river – waking up covered in leeches – but made it through to a settlement and eventually got back. Another was an artist and had his mother send him a camera. You weren’t allowed cameras but he had one anyway, and he would literally process his films in the trenches. At one point, some film was hanging out to dry when they were attacked, so he had to quickly pack everything away. When they got to safety of course they were all stuck together – so he licked them apart… If ever I feel, as a photographer, that things are a bit daunting I remind myself of that story!

The Burma Veterans exhibition is at St John’s Church, Cathedral Square Friday 23 June to Friday 7th July, open every day from 10am until 4pm

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