Before or after visiting Gallipoli: The scale of our war, take some time to head up to level 4 to see The Road to Recovery: Disabled Soldiers of World War I. This small-scale exhibition contains sobering content showing the long-term impact of the Great War on individuals, families and communities.
In the exhibition, eight large sepia photographs taken in 1918 show New Zealand soldiers trying to overcome illness and the loss of limbs. All of the men are participating in a job retraining programme set up by the commanding officer of the New Zealand forces in England. The identities of just two of the men are known. One, William Gemmell, lived a long and productive life after he returned to New Zealand. The other (below), Allan McMillan, died in a Dunedin convalescent home in the 1930 aged 39.
Of the 28 prints in Te Papa’s photography collection, perhaps the most visually arresting and moving are of Allan McMillan and another unidentified man (below) posing alone in rather bleak outdoor settings. In other images they are demonstrating clerical tasks and wool classing amongst groups of men. To me, these read as case studies, with the two mangled men presented to viewers as courageous and inspirational examples of individuals patiently triumphing over their disabilities.
I’ve concluded that the images were intended to be instructive – but not in the same way that clinical, before-and-after medical photographs documenting the treatment of soldiers’ facial wounds were. Te Papa’s images are examples of a pictorial genre that American historian Beth Linker describes as ‘social medicine photography’.
Linker argues that during World War I, such photography was used as a tool of ‘public persuasion not medical objectification’. Portraits of disabled soldiers were taken to convince the public that war-related disabilities could be mended or even made to disappear through physical and vocational rehabilitation. The subdued facial expressions of the New Zealand soldiers who posed for the camera in 1918 suggest to me that this was wishful thinking at best, and in reality quite deluded.
- See all 28 of Te Papa’s photographs of WWI amputees
- Reference : Beth Linker, ‘Shooting Disabled Soldiers’, Journal of the History of Medicine, volume 66, July 2011