A vast area of rural flat land, Salisbury plain feels oddly familiar. At first glance, it is like any other agricultural landscape. Sheep and cows wander the large empty plateau, completing an idyllic scene tainted only by tyre marks or the outline of a tower on the distant horizon. It is these remains, otherwise overlooked and insignificant, to which Melanie Friend brings attention in her latest publication, as she slowly brings us to the landscape’s other purpose as Britain’s largest military training ground.
Salisbury plain in Wiltshire southern England, has been occupied by the Ministry of Defence for over one hundred years. In the period leading up to World War II, it was used to prepare American soldiers for fighting in continental Europe. To make space for the base, local residents were evacuated, and villages – often situated on ancient Saxon settlements – were transformed into mock German towns. Today the site continues to adapt to the demands of modern warfare and is still used by NATO forces, amongst others, to prepare for conflict overseas. With over half of the area inaccessible to the public, the plain has become a haven for rare wildlife and an unlikely tourist spot.
It is this overlap between two contrasting worlds; the martial and the pastoral, which Friend interrogates in The Plain, observing the everyday militarisation of the rural landscape. Often this moment of military intervention is fleeting: a trail of dust from an army jeep or the presence of an object out of place; a forgotten artifact which accidently remains in the scene. Other times military presence is less subtle. Red flags, water towers and military bunkers appear cut out and imposed on an otherwise subdued and peaceful landscape. Such images remind me of Peter Kennard’s montage of John Constable’s Haywain – stacked with cruise missiles.
British photographer Melanie Friend began her career as a photojournalist, working in conflict zones and photographing the anti-nuclear movement and other peace campaigns in the 1980s. Like many photojournalists of her generation, the 1990s saw her work shift towards the gallery. This turn saw Friend questioning the apathy of journalistic photography, and after making work in Kosovo and Northern Macedonia, gradually her interests moved closer to home. In Home Front, she photographed British Armed Services recruitment events and air shows as a reflection on the marketing of fantasy surrounding war in British culture. The Plain, through its indirect examination of the military through the frame of the English pastoral, is a mature reflection which builds on obsessions and themes sustained by Friend throughout her career. Begun in 2015, it also marks – as Matthew Flintham observes in his accompanying text – a distinct change in pace, as she moves away from capturing an event as it takes place, to a study of landscape reliant on waiting and chance.
In choosing not to be an official military photographer – Friend worked independently of the military press office – there are no dramatic images or staged enactments in her photographs. Instead, Friend takes the routes and paths followed by walkers, forcing her to wait for moments when military activity spills over into the rural landscape. In The Plain, she shares her own encounters with the physical limitations and boundaries imposed by militarisation, as seen by the many warning and danger signs which feature in her images.
Friend’s strength is her reflection on militarisation as an embedded aspect of British rural culture, one that is always present in the landscape but rarely reveals itself in a direct, tangible form.
The inclusion of excerpted interviews with local residents adds an unexpected warmth to a series of formally composed images which might otherwise be mistaken for taking a reserved or distant stance – an aesthetic and political affiliation Flintham compares to ‘late’ or ‘aftermath’ photographers such as Angus Bolton or Simon Norfolk. Although I imagine these interviews may still emerge in different forms – Friend’s previous exhibitions have used sound – the presence of local voices adds to a sympathetic understanding that rural life is not picturesque but laden with its own social-political problems. Afterall, the military and the rural landscape share an extensive history of co-dependency. Rural economies, with their high levels of unemployment, are often dependent on army bases for job security and the Salisbury plain is no exception.
Printed during the pandemic, The Plain’s publication comes at a time when many of us find ourselves spending more time outdoors and partaking in our own adventures in long overlooked sites of natural beauty, often oblivious to the social-political circumstances that underpin a landscape. Salisbury plain is not a unique phenomenon, but one of numerous military sites in rural locations across Britain. Despite this, tourists and locals often share a feeling of disconnection between their experience and the reality. As one local resident explains “I don’t make the connection between hearing the guns firing up on the plain and the fact they are training to go out and kill other people”.
Friend’s strength is her reflection on militarisation as an embedded aspect of British rural culture, one that is always present in the landscape but rarely reveals itself in a direct, tangible form. In waiting for these moments when the martial and the pastoral fleetingly collide, she asks us to confront our role as bystanders and to see a landscape – often romanticised – for what it really is.