Your books being burned and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Artist Mark Neville experienced it all with his socially engaged book projects.
When traveling to Paris to visit the city’s art galleries, museums or art fairs I usually take the Eurostar from St. Pancras. My morning ritual is to order a coffee and read the paper in the lounge, board the train and connect to wi-fi to check emails or log in to the onboard entertainment.
The ‘onboard entertainment’ for my day trip to Paris Photo was something I never experienced before. During the journey four photographers would present their book projects to a group of journalists.
I listened in awe to the compelling stories and hardships that Mark Neville shared about his socially engaged book projects. He would have never imagined when he started his project ‘Port Glasgow’ to receive a phone call from the fire brigade telling him: “Your books are on fire Mr. Neville!”
For almost a year Neville photographed the citizens of Port Glasgow, a shipbuilding community on the west coast of Scotland. His idea was to make a book that was not commercially available but to hand out free copies to every single home in the Scottish town. It was his critique on the way that coffee table books always end up at the coffee tables of English white middle class people like himself and not on the coffee tables of the people represented in the book.
When the book was published the Protestant families in one particular street dumped their copies at the back of a catholic club and set fire to them. They thought there were too many pictures taken in Catholic clubs, pubs and churches, and not enough in Protestant clubs, pubs and churches in the book. Neville was obviously upset by the incident. Later, he flipped through the book and counted nine images taken in catholic clubs, pubs and churches, and seven were taken in Protestant clubs, pubs and churches. “That slight imbalance was enough to cause a book burning”, he says with sadness in his voice.
The delivery of the book became an issue as well. To deliver the books via Royal Mail to the homes, Neville calculated it was going to cost £14,000. He came up with the idea to ask 100 boys from the local football club to deliver the 8,000 books. The money that was saved he was going to give to the local boys football club and they could spend it on trips abroad or football kit.
When he presented his idea to the local council and explained that he wanted to feed money back into the community it was not received with great enthusiasm. They raised concerns that one of these kids might get bitten by a dog when they are delivering the books. He responded that an attack would be less likely when the boys would deliver the books to their family and friends. “The council agreed reluctantly, but the whole project nearly got closed down because of that”, Neville sighs.
Neville faced more hardship and had to go to even further lengths for his book project ‘Battle Against Stigma’. He even had to risk his life and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 2010, the arts organisation firstsite approached him if he would be interested in a residency working as a war artist in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
He went for a period of three months on the condition that his work would be exhibited six months after his return to make an impact on public opinion. He prepared himself by following BBC coverage of the British troops in Helmand and thought he would be ok. “The reality was horrific,” he confesses. “There is a shocking gap between what the BBC reports on the situation in Helmand and the reality. I thought I could trust the BBC, but you can’t”.
He describes the experience of what it was like in the war zone. “I was on patrol with soldiers. You’re in a line with six soldiers ahead of you and six behind. You can’t step left or right because you might stand on an improvised explosive device and endanger your life and the lives of others. It’s very stressful and frightening. We were shot at by the Taliban and you hear explosions day and night”.
From his experience on the front line he wanted to make a book to encourage veterans suffering from PTSD to come forward and get treatment. “There is a huge stigma attached to PTSD especially when you are a soldier,” he says.
He produced a slipcase featuring two books. Volume I documents Neville’s own journey with PTSD and the pictures he took in Helmand. Volume II features accounts of serving and ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. 1,500 copies of the book were printed in Spain and were shipped in two consignments. Again Neville was confronted with delivery issues. “The first consignment of 500 copies got seized by UK Border Force”, says Neville. “However, the second consignment of 1,000 copies came via a different route and arrived safely at my studio”.
Neville spent several months sending out copies to homeless centres, mental health charities and prisons – all the places that he imagined untreated veterans suffering from PTSD would end up. His story was also reproduced for the print newspaper and website of the Independent. At the end he put his email address with the message that he would send free copies to veterans suffering from PTSD or people related to them. Neville’s inbox was overloaded with over a thousand requests for a copy of the book and unsolicited stories by veterans with incredible personal details about what happened to them, what it was like in Afghanistan or what it was like when they came back home.
When Neville arrived back at the Royal Air Force station Brize Norton there was no one to meet him. He arrived in full combat gear and recalls the emotional train journey to Glasgow where he was living at the time. “I was just in floods of tears relieved that I came back in one piece”.
Back home, Neville experienced the symptoms of PTSD and the impact of the condition on his day-to-day life. He had to reverse his way of thinking. “I thought that everything was all wrong here, all phoney”, he says. “Real life is at the war zone. But after a while you realise that it is twisted thinking. The war zone is terrible fiction. All the things you need in order to cope and survive in a war zone on a daily basis are totally different from all the things we need to cope with such as paying the bills or answering emails. All those things have no importance in a war zone and vice versa. You have to unlearn all these skills how to survive in a war zone as back here they are all useless”.
In order to justify the risks he took, Neville had agreed with the organisation who commissioned his war residency that they would provide an exhibition opportunity immediately after his return. It took three years for his work to be exhibited. In that period he tried to find exhibition opportunities himself and being confronted with the war experience every day made it more difficult to get it out of his system. Finally, he was given a solo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2014. Neville remarks that the timing of the exhibition was curious though. “They showed the work the very month the British troops pulled out of Helmand, Afghanistan. Is that a coincidence?” He pauses for a moment. “Probably not.”
Written by Thierry Somers
Photography: Mark Neville in Helmand.
‘Out in the Desert’, Mark Neville, 2010, ‘On Patrol in Gereshk’, Mark Neville, 2010, ‘The Firing Range’, Mark Neville, 2010
‘Child’s Play & Other Stories’ by Mark Neville will part of the Singapore International Photography Festival from 6 September until 9 December 2018. On display will be five of Neville’s social documentary projects and his personal experience as an official war artist in Helmand.