Unofficial war photography

Sunday 8 August, marks the 95th anniversary of the capture of Chunuk Bair by New Zealand troops. While the victory was short-lived, it has been suggested by some that 8 August should be New Zealand’s war memorial day.

A quiet moment in the war – Andy's grandfather Jack Houghton is on the left

A quiet moment in the war – Andy's grandfather Jack Houghton is on the left

The other week I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Tauranga, though I wasn’t there entirely just for pleasure. I spent three-and-a-bit days in a windowless room at the Tauranga Heritage Collection tasked with re-photographing an old photo album.

During the First World War Kate Booth was a nurse based at the New Zealand military hospital in Cairo. During her time there she built up an album of photos, some presumably taken by her and some taken by other people, including her patients. The album is currently owned by Kate’s niece and is likely to stay in private hands for the foreseeable future. But the value of the album as a whole, and of specific photos, meant that some of our colleagues in the ministry’s History Group felt there should be a public record of the photo album.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

Consequently, I spent the best part of three days re-photographing the 900-odd photos. Bearing in mind that the photos are over 90 years old, many have stood the test of time well. Admittedly quite a few hadn’t, with some having faded to near-off-white. I didn’t really spend as much time looking at the photos as I thought I might have. I was more interested in making sure that all the camera and flash were working okay and making sure I was matching up the right file number with the right caption in a spreadsheet.

The photos are now with History Group and some will, no doubt, soon be finding their way onto NZHistory.net.nz, and other publications.

Hanging out, with guns

Hanging out, with guns

Coincidentally, a few years ago I got my hands on some of my grandfather’s negatives, also taken in and around Cairo during wartime – this time, the Second World War. I can’t recall ever speaking to Jack about his time in the service; I got the impression (most probably from Mum) that it wasn’t something he talked about. And sadly, I only got hold of the negatives after his death.

Jack Houghton, with sandbags

Jack Houghton, with sandbags

It was quite interesting going through his photos, not least because I had been to some of the same places he had visited decades earlier – Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo. There were other photos which I couldn’t place, and others from places I was unfamiliar with. While the quality of the negatives isn’t great, the real value in them for me is the little piece of our family history they tell.

The same is true, to a large extent, with the Kate Booth photos, but equally their vernacular nature makes them unofficial records of hugely important parts of our recent-ish history. Almost certainly there are hundreds of similar collections in drawers and cupboards around the country waiting to be rediscovered, and hopefully conserved for future generations.

A group of soldiers out for a ramble

A group of soldiers out for a ramble

(All photos are by, or of, Jack Houghton, taken in the Middle East between late 1941 and 1945)

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Emma || August 9th, 2010

    Interesting blog & photos.
    The photos remind a bit of my own grandfather’s photos from Italy during WWII: ‘Soldier with rifle’, ‘Soldier standing by truck’, ‘Group of mates having a cup of tea.’ The location seemed irrelevant as they’re all doing the same things!
    I wonder how many Kiwis have got their own collections tucked away somewhere?

  2. Comment made by Phil Lambert || August 11th, 2010

    Gosh those photos sure takes me back. I remember rummaging through my grandfathers old photos from the war. It sure was fascinating stuff!

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