Artist's Statement: D-Day veterans photographed on their return to Normandy

| 29 April 2014

Artist’s Statement: Photographer Robin Savage on portraying D-Day veterans in the French fields where they served 70 years ago

A photo of a veteran female member of the army dressed in a suit and war medals
Vera Hay was one of the first British nurses to land at Normandy© Robin Savage
“I became interested in the Second World War at an early age, watching old footage of soldiers fighting in hedgerows with great curiosity.

As I matured, so did my interest. And the more I learned, the more I understood about the immense sacrifice made by the generation of men and women I’d been watching on television years before.

The discovery that the hedgerows in the films were those in a particular region of northern France began my fascination with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

Years later, in December 2011, I began a personal project that would eventually culminate in this exciting exhibition and book.

This was a tricky photograph to get – Vera had agreed to be photographed but as she hadn’t been back to the chateau since the war, she only had a rough idea of where it was, so it was very difficult to find.

I did lots of research using the name of the chateau but drew a blank. She knew in which direction from Bayeaux it was, but it wasn’t until she remembered that the Paris to Cherbourg railway line lay at the bottom of the orchard at the chateau that I was able to pinpoint it.

I was in Normandy a month before the shoot to recce all the locations, so I drove to the chateau to explain what I was doing and ask permission to bring Vera there to photograph her, which the owners kindly gave.

It was an amazing moment to see the glint of recognition in Vera’s eyes as we turned up at the chateau, and I think the owners enjoyed having her there as much as she enjoyed being back.

A photo of a veteran standing in a large field dressed in a suit jacket full of war medals
William Bray, of the 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, pictured on June 6 2013 - 69 years to the day after he had parachuted into the fields behind him© Robin Savage
“It’s a long walk from the road to this vantage point and it was another special moment to watch William’s face as he turned the corner and saw the field he parachuted into, 69 years ago precisely, unfold in front of him, virtually unchanged.

But time was against us – I was so preoccupied with getting the shot that I hadn’t noticed the huge thunderstorm heading our way.

We had a matter of minutes until it was upon us, so I worked very quickly to make sure I was happy we’d got it, before gathering up all the gear and helping William back to the cars just as the storm enveloped.

The commemorations in Normandy can often be a busy period for the veterans. It is a time for private remembrance for these individuals and I was immensely moved by the gracious kindness of the veterans and their generosity with their time.

Being in the company of such extraordinary people has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life and I am honoured that many of them have become friends.

I treasure memories of the hours – and, in some cases, only minutes - spent in the company of such gentle and noble men and women. I am only too aware that the debt we owe their generation is one that can never be paid.”

  • The Last of the Liberators is at IWM Duxford from April 29 – December 2014. Read our Preview.

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