Dara McGrath – Project Cleansweep

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Review by Douglas Stockdale

What might imminent danger look like? Will something look so out of place or potentially evil that this might provide the necessary visual clues to warn us to become diligent, alert and stay cautious? Would there be something such as a dark stain on the land with something suspicious emanating from the ground that does not look approachable? Might a pond of water appear so sickly off-color as to alert us of the potentialities of bodily harm? Or will the landscape look bland, pastoral, bucolic and perhaps a bit ‘wild’ and delude us as to its lack of innocence?

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense issued a report in 2011 with the title Project Cleansweep, which assessed the risk of residual contamination at sites in the United Kingdom used in the manufacture, storage, and disposal of chemical and biological weapons from World War I to the present day. Dara McGrath was inspired to undertake his photographic documentary project that examines the same subjects; the use of land within the U.K. for the Manufacture, Storage, Testing and Dispersal testing of weapons for combat. McGrath’s project documents 80 sites through the U.K, as well as completing a deeper dive into four sites; Rhydymwn (North Wales) a manufacturing site; Harpur Hill (Debbyshire, England) a storage site; Gruinard Island (Scotland) a testing site, and Lyme Bay (Dorset, England) a Dispersal test site.

McGrath’s question is essential framed in how does our past still haunt us? This question is articulated nicely by Robert MacFarlane in the book’s Foreword and provides a well-thought-out framework for this project. I need to state my own interest in this photobook, which stems from the fact that I live on a decommissioned WWII practice bombing range in Southern California. Living on a similar ex-military site in the U.S. makes McGrath’s documentary project really resonate with me.

McGrath has documented many small gestures, perhaps taken out of context, that become all the more vexing, perhaps ominous, due to the ambiguity. Why is that arrow painted on the roadway and what is it indicating? What should we be looking at and why? A temporary green fence appears to randomly zig-zap though the landscape; is there trouble brewing there? Ducks are observed floating on a waterway; does that mean this waterway might be equally safe for us as well? Why would a small creek have such an opaque-gray tinted water that does not appear drinkable, what might be the underlying reason for such an evil looking waterway to occur? Later a similar looking grayish pond appearing to be filled with used tires; is there a reason that this looks so distasteful to the point we can even imagine its pungent smell.

This project asks more difficult questions; can we co-inhabit with lurking dangerous conditions? Is the military, government or local civilian organizations providing sufficient warnings, monitoring and restoration of the impacted areas that make it safe to live in close proximity? If so, how close might one venture before an increasing risk of harm? What else might we be concerned about, are there toxic lakes or some nasty things that are buried and hidden out of sight? What dangerous ‘proof-of-concept’ weapon(s) has the military and government still keeping secret that could affect the quality of life of those who live near their manufacturing and testing site(s)?

The various weapons of war, both traditionally as explosives, and non-traditional as Mustard Gas employed in WWI and now biological weapons require development and subsequent production before being deployed. Likewise, deterrents against foreign aggression also require development at various sites and research laboratories. Even non-exotic munition production includes manufacturing processes that create hazardous waste and how to safely dispose of these elements to protect the many generations yet to come?

The photographs are straight forward and carefully composed documents. The book is interwoven with archival photographs and documents that provide a more in-depth examination, although a black and white photograph of the young child meandering on a road flanked by stacks of military shells is a bit unnerving. The Smyth binding of the off-set four-color printed book allow an almost lay-flat reading, which is a pleasure and consistent with the Kehrer publishing projects.

Evident in the reading of McGrath’s visual narrative is that the results of a distant fought war, even a long time ago, can have local and current health consequences. This is a complex subject that requires thoughtful consideration and a documentary project such as this by McGrath does help to place the impact of these thorny types of military support decisions into the proper perspective for mankind. We need to live with the consequences for a long time to come.

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Project Cleansweep, Dara McGrath

Photographer: Dara McGrath, born in Limerick City, Ireland and residing in Cork, Ireland

Publisher: Kehrer Verlag, Germany, copyright 2020

Essays: Rachel Andrews, Robert MacFarlane, Dara McGrath, Ulf Schmidt

Text: English

Hardcover, sewn binding, captions, printed & bound in Germany, ISBN 978-3-86828-967-1

Photobook Designer: Read That Image

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

 

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