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Shrine Conversations: What's it like photographing the Belgian Bomb Disposal team?

Artist Ian Alderman spent seven years photographing the Belgian army’s bomb disposal team as they recovered ammunition from land that was once the battlefields of Passchendaele.

Once a shell was identified, he had just two minutes to capture the moment before the team moved on to their next call. 

This intricate work culminated in Recovering the Past—a unique photographic exhibition that connects these Belgian men with men of the Australian Imperial Force who fought during the First World War. The two groups are united through the art of photomontage, which results in a fascinating reflection on the enduring repercussions of human conflict.

Listen as Ian unpacks Recovering the Past, including how he combined 100-year-old photographs with modern ones, and what he hopes people take away from his exhibition. 


LAURA THOMAS: Hello and welcome to this episode of Shrine Conversations – a series where we meet interesting people and chat about their links to times of war and peace. My name is Laura Thomas and I’m the production coordinator here at the Shrine. 

In this episode, we went global and spoke with Ian Alderman, a London-based artist whose exhibition Recovering the Past is on display at the Shrine from March to September 2024. 

This unique photographic exhibition unites two distinct groups of men separated by a century, connected by conflict and the art of photo montage. The first is men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who battled in Flanders. The second - Belgian men who carry out the meticulous work of bomb disposal on those same former battlefields today.

Ian has taken the historical images and combined them with those he took in the modern day to create an interesting look into the ongoing effects of conflict  Ian joined me to chat about the inspiration behind this exhibition and also the technical aspects of joining together two groups of people, now centuries apart. 

As I mentioned, this was a podcast recorded from different sides of the world, so you’ll have to excuse some funny audio in sections.  I hope you enjoy! Hi Ian, welcome. 

IAN ALDERMAN: Hi, thank you for having me. Real pleasure. Looking forward to our conversation and joining the exhibition shortly. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now, let's start at the beginning. Where did the idea for this photographic exhibition come from? 

IAN ALDERMAN: So the very beginning,I actually wanted to produce a set of work for the 2014-18 commemorations. Now, we're talking about 2010, when I first had an idea to do a project. And it took a little while to work out what to do. But that was the that was the seed really, it was wanting to just yeah, just be part of a crowd of artists here in the UK that were producing something from the commemorations. 

LAURA THOMAS: And have you got a family history relating to service? Did that kind of build into this interest as well?

IAN ALDERMAN: Yes, very much so actually, my great grandfather, he was a professional soldier. And he initially served in India in the late 1800s, and found himself in France on the Somme during the First World War, where unfortunately at Delville Wood he was shot in the spine and evacuated back to the UK, where he suffered paralysis. And ultimately, it was my great great grandmother, who nursed him for the remaining 20 years of his life. So effectively. it's their experience, which underpins the exhibition, it's based on their experience,

LAURA THOMAS: Is that in terms of the ongoing effects of conflict and war, how did you build that into this exhibition?

IAN ALDERMAN: Yes, very much so. So having decided on the narrative for the exhibition, this is where they come into it. Very much so. His injury in terms of his paralysis, he literally could not do anything for the remaining 20 years of life. And, and it was the realisation one day that she, my great grandmother, willingly gave up 20 years of her life, to become his full-time carer. And it was quite a moment when I realised that actually she was indirectly a victim of the war itself. And neither of these people are commemorated on a monument. Certainly in the UK, the war memorials literally list the names of the men who died in battle, none of the survivors of the First World War are on any monument. War widows, the orphans, the grieving mothers, they never appear anywhere. So effectively, this was the start point for the project was to build it around part of the narrative is built around these people, let's raise the profile because there's no shortage of them out there. And of course, my family is a great example of it. So yeah, that's where it came from. 

LAURA THOMAS: When you were building this exhibition, I was reading that you drew some inspiration from some Australian artists Frank Hurley, and Will Longstaff. What about their work inspired you for your work?

IAN ALDERMAN: So the 25 photographs that make up this exhibition are effectively a series of montages, an image of my own with with archival images of Australia's Diggers montaged in. So Hurley actually, during the course of the First World War, produced a series of montage images, which are still amazing to this day. He produced them to show the Australian public what the war was actually like, because he couldn't capture the scene in a single image. So he produced these montages to explain the picture as he saw it. Moving to Willl Longstaff, in his very much celebrated painting 'Menin Gate at Midnight', he depicts the diggers as ghosted figures. So I brought the montage of Hurley and the ghosted effect of Longstaff together in my work. So we've got a very strong Australian foundation, the whole project is artistically visually, is built on on Australian influence. And I will just say one quick thing at this point, people could interpret the pictures in any way they want. That's the great thing about galleries and exhibitions is, as an artist, I believe you let the people into the images, let them finish the story. I provide 90 per cent, I tell people and I think thatten per cent can be interpreted by the viewer in any way they want. But with respect to Longstaff's approach, he is showing them as ghosts. I haven't. They're not ghosts. I've adopted his visual effect of a ghosted effect, I just think it was a good idea to avoid the idea of ghosts, I think it was a smart move just to adopt his effect.

LAURA THOMAS: I think it's a theme and an approach that definitely comes through strongly with the images. So if you haven't yet seen the exhibition, I strongly recommend you come in and have a look in and form that 10%, as you say Ian, for yourself. But what I'm really interested in talking about now is the actual process of getting these photographs and putting the exhibition together. Because the project was produced alongside the Belgian armed forces. Ian, was it hard to get this project across the line, you know, as a civilian, people might call me, I can understand that the military machine can be quite hard to get those kinds of approvals for. What was that process like?

IAN ALDERMAN: When I initially came up with, with the visual concept, I put a small image together, which looked really great. And it was a case of 'What do I need to produce this project?'. I needed two things. I needed access to the visual archives of another nation. And I needed permission to work with the Armed Forces of yet another foreign nation. So there's no British anywhere on this project. It's Belgian, and it's Australian. And I thought about this. And initially, I thought, 'It's just an impossible ask to get permission from both'. And I sat on the idea, and I kept looking at it and thinking that's such a cool idea. And in the end, it was a case of well, if you don't ask, you will never get. So in the same day, I fired off a letter to both the Belgian military and the Australian War Memorial, and was pretty much given permission to use what I wanted and to visit Belgium and follow the bomb disposal team almost straightaway, which was it was a eureka moment. And it was quite amazing. So yeah, I expected the permission, certainly with the armed forces, with the Belgian armed forces, to be an impossibility. But it turns out, they were so open to the idea because a couple of people I subsequently found out had kind of also written to them wanting to take photographs for magazine articles just to show they were still undertaking operations, daily operations, collecting the ammunition from the First World War. Then I went to them with a completely different concept, an art project. And they saw this as an opportunity for their unit, they don't have an art department in the unit. It's an active military unit. So somebody, me, has gone to them with this quite interesting concept. And they saw it as an opportunity to promote their work. bomb disposal work in the 14-18 commemorations. So yeah, it worked out nicely. And my timing was good as it happened.

LAURA THOMAS: And before heading over, you mentioned that you got permission to use all these historical images. Did you choose the images that you were going to use for the final project before going over? Like how did that process work?

IAN ALDERMAN: So that's a great question. It was a time consuming task. It meant hours of searching through the war memorial's archives to identify images that I believed would work with the project. And I think the most important thing with the archives images is that I needed photographs with the diggers, the Australian soldiers, who are engaging with the camera to the original photographer in the First World War. So expression, engagement between them and the original photographer. It was absolutely paramount because in the images that I was going to be taking, the men in the archive pictures would ultimately have been montaged into my images, they need to be engaging with me. So that was really, really important. Sunny Days, cloudy days, I had no idea on the multiple trips that I made to Belgium to film the project when I was out with the bomb disposal team, I had no idea of the weather conditions that I'd be working under. So I can't use an archival image of a group of Australian soldiers that were photographed originally on a sunny day. I can't montage those men into a photograph of mine, that was taken on a cloudy day. They have to be a visual match. There were lots and lots of different criteria for a visual match. But the sunny day, cloudy day was the big one. So I effectively whittled it down to 200, 250 archival images that would, I believe, make for great montages. Yeah, it was a time consuming if enjoyable task.

LAURA THOMAS: So all in all, for this exhibition, you accompanied the Belgian bomb disposal team on 250 individual collections. What happened during this collection? Set the scene for us, what did it involve?

IAN ALDERMAN: It's so interesting, as an observer, as a non military person, I've never served, I've never been involved with ammunition or the military in any way whatsoever. And this is very, very interesting. I'm engaging, not just with a bomb disposal operation, but with history, with the First World War. There are still parts of Europe where the First World War is evident on a daily basis. France, Belgium, in particular, with the bomb disposal operations, it's a full time operation, an extraordinary scale. So the Western Front, as it went through Belgium is about 40 miles, the Belgian border, met the French border and then goes down to Switzerland, you got 400 miles of frontline. So in the 40 miles of Belgium, you've got ammunition saturation at a simply staggering level. So there's a lot of ammunition in a small area. France has 10 times the length of the Western Front, so they've actually got more ammunition but spread over a greater area. So these operations are all day every day. So the way it works is that somebody, a farmer, construction worker, or just an ordinary member of the public in their back garden, they dig a hole, and up comes a bomb. You can't dig a hole in Belgium without something coming out of the ground be it a  relic of a soldier, a bone, a piece of a uniform, a bullet, a bomb, piece of shrapnel, it's literally everywhere. The important thing to remember with this is that the bomb disposal team do not look for ammunition. They've only got the time to collect what everyone else finds. There's no point in looking. Every field you see will have thousands of shells beneath the grass. So they only collect what other people find. So somebody finds something. The first thing they do is call the police. The police attend the scene and they confirm that it is a shell. They might make a small report - 'it's one shell or five shells of approximately that size'. And they write the address. This report is then sent to the bomb disposal team. The following day, a truckload of personnel are sent out to collect the shells. And it won't be just that one collection. It's usually three teams, so three trucks, to 8, 10, 15 collections each a day, so 30 to 50 collections every single day. And the days get much busier in the two annual ploughing seasons when the farmers are out in the fields ploughing a field, they can bring up eight or 10 shells out of that field every time they plough it. Next time they plough it a couple of months later, another eight or 10 shells pop out of the same piece of ground. So when the team arrive, first thing they do is assess the ammunitions type and condition. Most of the time, it's safe enough to just pick up and carry it by hand to the truck. On other occasions, and this happened on the last time I was out there last year, one particular farm we attended had a shell that was clearly leaking fluid. And that was a toxic shell, that was a gas shell, the contents were still in it. And that's a whole different kettle of fish. They have to treat the shell, they have to tend the shell, they have to seal it so it can't leak any more at the scene. And only when the process is complete do they put it in the truck and then proceed to the next call out. Very very straightforward process but done with as you might imagine, remarkable care and attention to detail. You cannot get this wrong. All of the shells they collect are live. The big difference is that they're either fired or unfired. But, yeah, the contents, that only becomes clearer when they get back when the shells are x rayed. And then it goes into a disposal process dependent on the shells contents. But it's, they're really interesting people, they're knowledgeable on not just the items they're picking up, but they're aware of what happened in that area during the war. It's a fascinating experience to piggyback on the back of the team. 

LAURA THOMAS: Being such delicate work, it seems like there's obviously time pressure and safety pressures as well. I can imagine that you didn't have much time to say, 'Alright, pause there, I'm going to take a photo', like how did that negotiation work?

IAN ALDERMAN: That's a great point. So because the teams are literally so busy, one stop to another, to another, to another to another, I was given by the commanding officer a couple of minutes, literally, at each location. If it was appropriate. For one of the exhibition images, I was given two minutes to take the photographs that I needed. So effectively it just meant doing as much pre production, technical pre production, before the project started. So that when I arrived on a farm or back garden, that I knew this was a really great location, told a really interesting story. I knew which archival image would work perfectly at that location. And it was just a case then of working around the shell it was obviously on the ground, positioning the guys for the shot, two minutes of shooting. And then they literally said 'We've got to go now'. And that was it. They'd pick the shell up, take it to the truck. And off we go to the next pickup.

LAURA THOMAS: How long were you with the bomb disposal team over the period of developing this exhibition?

IAN ALDERMAN: I'd go for a week at a time. So I'd travel out from the UK very early Monday morning and catch a ferry back on the Friday evening. I think over the seven years of shooting, I probably made 10 or 15 trips to Belgium to produce the images I needed. Sometimes, I'd go on those trips and not come back with a single image. I've seen amazing things of hordes of shells, unfired shells, hundreds stacked up still in the field is quite a sight. So it was fantastic to see these, it was a frustration to come back with nothing. But those locations on some trips in a whole week of being there, maybe 10 a day, so 50 locations, 30, 40, 50 locations, none were appropriate. This was not a project I was prepared to rush. I knew that the project was strong in literally every single aspect of it. And the bomb disposal team could not have been more supportive. They just said, 'Look, if you need more, come back. We're happy to have you. You know, you know the way we work, we trust you being around us, you know not to touch'. Pretty basic stuff really. So yeah. It was a lot of time out there. For 25 pictures, it might seem excessive. But now we've got the final article on the wall. And, you know, it is a great project. It's a great, great set of images. So it was a lot of work. Seven years for 25 pictures,

LAURA THOMAS: You mentioned that you could go for a week and none of the images were appropriate, is that in terms of like what you spoke about before with the light and and that kind of thing, or was that more the content of what you were shooting wasn't going to work for your project?

IAN ALDERMAN: In actual fact is a bit of both. Rainy days, forget. There's nothing you can do on a rainy day. Montaging soldiers behind raindrops. No, it's just not going to happen. So yeah, wet weather days scuppered a lot of it. I remember one particular call out, a guide called the police, he'd found some shells in his back garden. It was a tiny little bungalow. And when we turned up what had happened, this gentleman had been mowing his lawn and the blades of the mower, as he walked down his lawn, started sparking, and he thought was a bit odd. So he moved the lawnmower and a shell had naturally broken through the surface and the tip of it was sticking out of the ground. And as he went over the mower of course the blades of the mower kept flipping the top of the shell so it was sparking. Now it turns out, he was a former member of the bomb disposal team, so he knew exactly what to do. But we turned up there. It was such a great story. It was a really interesting story. But it was a tiny garden with a hedge. And there was nothing interesting about that location in terms of composition. So in terms of putting the images together, it's not just a case of finding a location that was good in terms of it allowed space to incorporate the Australian soldiers, it also had to be a really great composition.

LAURA THOMAS: It sounds like you've had to make so many tough decisions in this process through shooting all the photographs on the field. And then I imagine a similar process of tough decisions had to follow when you were actually going through editing these images and creating those montages. Can you talk me through that process?

IAN ALDERMAN: So before I actually started putting the project together, at the very, very beginning, I spent a week in a field and Wales with printouts of the 250 or so archival images I thought would make great candidate images. So for each of those images, I had to work out as near as possible the original photographer's camera height, the angle of the camera, the direction of the light, it's really important because if it's a sunny day, all this information I worked out for all of the 250 images, that data was put on a PDF manual that I took with me. One was called sunny days, one called cloudy days. And the reason this was so important, is that I'd turn up at a construction site or back garden, or farm where ammunition was to be collected. If it was a location that was just ideal for, for a project image, I've got a really excellent brain for remembering images. And I'd know in an instant, which archival image work at that location or at a given location. So I'd literally flip through the manual I took with me and on there was all of the the math that I've worked out. So the camera height, the camera angle, the direction of the light. And effectively, I had to make a really great composition of that location, setting the camera to match the criteria of the original photographer's camera, this is so important. If you join two photographs together. And the camera that took both photographs are at different heights, different angle, the perspective of the two will never match. When you join the two photographs together, you have to match the perspective.

LAURA THOMAS:  And something that strikes me, particularly with your images in this project, is the detail, like some of the images have a puddle or a bit of water. And you've worked to make the reflection of the diggers in the historical image to match that like just the detail that you would have had to go through. How long did each of these images take to produce?

IAN ALDERMAN: Each of the images averages out at three days per image in post production, so they went through three pieces of software. And that's a really important point you've raised there. Several people said to me, 'Hey, look, the ghosted figure, the digger, you've given them a reflection in a puddle'. And also it's, it's not so obvious, but every single Australian soldier in any the pictures, if they're depicted on concrete, or asphalt or solid surface, each of them has a shadow, they have to have a shadow. When I first put the first few photographs together, having cut the Australian soldiers out and dropped them into my images, they were floating. And it just looked wrong. They looked as though they'd been dropped in. It didn't quite work, there was something missing. And it took me a little while to work out what it was. And it actually came to me while I was driving the car one day, they don't have shadows, they're floating. So the moment I was reunited with the computer again, I built in shadows, and it brings the soldiers to earth, it actually grounds them. So in the photograph, the modern Belgian soldiers, and the Australian archival soldiers, they have to be treated as equals. It doesn't matter if one's from 100 years ago, and one is present day, I have treated them as equals. And on that basis, they deserve a reflection in a puddle and they need a shadow. 

LAURA THOMAS: Why was it so important to you to have them all equal? Why did you want them to appear this way and not as you know the ghosts that we saw in Longstaff's images?

IAN ALDERMAN: I think equality generally in life, it is so important to respect equality. The exhibition itself, effectively the elevator pitch is that it's a project which raises a profile of the long term physical and social consequences of war. Now it's filmed in Belgium. Has Belgian soldiers, modern Belgian soldiers. It has archival Australian soldiers. The text that accompanies each of the images, features quotes of traumatised Australians from the 1920s. So survivors of war, survivors being mothers, survivors in war widows, these are survivors of war, they're victims of war in their own right. So the important thing about this with equality is that this project is not a political statement. This project is not pro war or anti war the project is not about Victors and vanquished. It's not winners or losers. It's all about equality. And the reason this is so important, is it means that the exhibition itself represents literally every victim and survivor of war globally. The work is a template that applies everywhere, and effectively not just to the First World War, but to every war since and likely those to come as well. So it helps with the longevity of the project from my perspective as the artist but I want this to represent everyone, and it's a logical place to start with equality and representing all, is with the men in the pictures. They are equal. And I want people to see them as equal. And I remember one very interesting comment from an Australian lady who saw the exhibition when it was on display in Belgium, during the commemorations. And there was one photograph in the exhibition of a line of Australian soldiers marching alongside two Belgian bomb disposal guys who are are carrying shells. And the reason she loved this picture, she said, 'That's my favourite photograph'. And I said 'Tell me why, I'd love to know why'. And she said, 'Because you've got our boys marching next to the modern day Belgians,' she said, 'You're showing them as equal'. So people pick this up. Equality is so important. It's fundamental to every single aspect of the exhibition. There's no one person that is alienated or treated as anything less than another, either in the text, the narrative, the images themselves. I'm very proud that it represents literally, everyone, I think it's really important. 

LAURA THOMAS: What was the response from the Belgian bomb disposal team, the people that you were photographing, to the exhibition? I assume that a lot of them have come and seen it? 

IAN ALDERMAN: Yeah, I mean, they're very proud of it, actually. They've been super supportive with it, with every display that the works had. And for this display the Shrine, as you know,  there's an additional display that's focused on their work, which is the first time we've had this at the exhibition. So I think visitors to the Shrine, they're not just going to get to see a great set of pictures, they're going to see a really lovely, interesting display that's focused on the bomb disposal team's history and ongoing operation. And it's really, I ought to say this point, they started collecting the unexploded ammunition from the First World War in 1920. And they expected it to take three years. Here we are 104 years later. And it's nonstop. So they're actually in their second continuous century now, of collecting ammunition from the First World War. They won't give you an estimate of what they think still lies in the ground. There's vast quantities still to come. They're going to be there for a long time. 

LAURA THOMAS: I'm going to ask you one final question Ian, and it's a big one, so apologies in advance for that, because there are so many threads in this exhibition for people to pick up. But for those coming to visit the exhibition,Recovering the Past at the Shrine, what do you hope that they take away from it?

IAN ALDERMAN: One of the really important things about putting this project together, there was so much thought and so many different ideas that went into this. Effectively, I always tell people, it's like a pyramid. I wrote a whole long list of things that may be worth including and effectively as a project progressed, you realised you don't need that, you don't need that. And slowly you narrow it. So you end up at the apex of the pyramid, you've stripped away all the the chaff and you've literally just got the wheat, you've got the core message. And the exhibition is multi layered. It works multi levels, multiple levels. I came to the decision quite early on that there is no point at all, in putting what turned out to be a hugely expensive project to assemble, there is no point producing a project like this, that isn't accessible to everyone. So I mean, from young children, to teenagers, to adults, to older members of society. What is the point of making something that is either scary in a visual sense, or in a tech sense? So there are no images of conflict itself in the photographs. It's approachable to all, it's it's of such importance. I want everybody to feel they can come and see the work. It's moving. It's poignant. There's no question. It makes for quite difficult reading but it is by design, appraochable to all. 

IAN ALDERMAN: So in answer to your question, I want people to go understanding in particular that the survivors of war run into the hundreds of millions, and we just don't give them the thought that I think they deserve. We always think of the cemeteries and Gallipoli and France and Belgium and Arlington in American, all the servicemen that have died. It's a very easy thing to think of, because these are beautiful tended cemeteries, all with the same stones, and you walk into these cemeteries and I've been in literally hundreds of them now. And they're, they're extraordinary. They're just beautiful. But where is everyone else? Where are the survivors? And to give you just a little bit of information on the British World War One,  I think it was about 11 or 12%, something like that, of the British Army died in the First World War. I think is about half or two thirds of those are in cemeteries with a stone bearing their name. There's still a vast number of the men that have never been found. They're still in the fields. So where are the other 85, 86, 87%? Well, they're in cemeteries dotted around the UK, under ordinary stones. Where are the war widows? They're in cemeteries around the UK. We never think of these people, we only think of the men in the cemetery. So I want this exhibition to raise the profile of all wars survivors, I don't care whether they were the winning side or the losing side, it doesn't matter. It's not about that. It's a very human, a very people focused project. So I want people to go away feeling they've kind of understood a situation, which is less appreciated. 

LAURA THOMAS: That's a very poignant note for us to end on, Ian, so thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

IAN ALDERMAN: Thank you for inviting me.

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of The shrine conversation series. For more, make sure you hit subscribe to stay up to date with our latest episodes. Recovering the past is on display at the shrine from the 30th of March to the 29th of September 2024. For more information head to