Sunday soldiers

Squadron Sergeant-Major Nick Gibson, Royal Engineers

This week sees the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed in northern France and began the campaign that would end the conflict in Europe against Nazi Germany the following year. American photographer Daniella Zalcman moved to the UK recently and began a project to make portraits of people who take part in military re-enactment. Here she talks about the work.

When I moved from New York to London in November 2012, I immediately began looking for a photo project that would allow me to get to know the UK. I grew up in the Maryland/Virginia area of the US, where civil war re-enactment is an exceedingly common hobby, and I loved the idea of it — though I found it slightly ironic that most participants' families probably weren't even in America yet during the Civil War.

A table with gloves and chess pieces

But in the UK, World War Two is still very much a part of Britain's collective consciousness and the act of re-enactment is deeply personal. Many wear uniforms that belonged to their fathers or grandfathers, and others assemble impressions of specific veterans with whom they've corresponded.

The process itself is also different here — it's less about the live battles and more about "living history" displays, where re-enactors set up barracks life as it would have been during the war, allowing visitors to interact and ask questions about weaponry, uniforms, vehicles, and day to day paraphernalia like razors, playing cards, and candy.

The attention to detail is obsessive. Whatever props aren't original are carefully reproduced using photographs, journals, and any other primary sources available as aids. Friendly nitpicking at other re-enactors' uniforms is routine. Either the buttons aren't right, puttees aren't wrapped the right way, or something isn't polished sufficiently.

I shot the entire project on a Yashica D twin lens reflex film camera (1950s, technically, but the same technology that was used by World War Two photojournalists like Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa). I felt that if my subjects were trying that hard to immerse themselves in technology form that era then so should I, and it had the added benefit of encouraging them to open up to me much more quickly than if I'd been shooting with my regular digital gear.

Richard Jelley, Red Army Richard Jelley, Red Army
Callum Musgrove, British Home Guard Private Callum Musgrove, British Home Guard Private
Bradley Cooper, Second Lieutenant, Essex Second Battalion Bradley Cooper, Second Lieutenant, Essex Second Battalion
Mark Anthony Craig, Oberfeldwebel, Kampfgeschwader 55, Platoon Leader, Luftwaffe Mark Anthony Craig, Oberfeldwebel, Kampfgeschwader 55, Platoon Leader, Luftwaffe
Soldier takes aim A re-enactor takes aim
Christopher Denby, Private, Aufklarungsgruppe Grossdeutschland Christopher Denby, Private, Aufklarungsgruppe Grossdeutschland (Reconnaissance group)
Jason Hopkins, RAF Aircraftman Jason Hopkins, RAF Aircraftman
Wayne Ladd, RAF Squadron Leader, Battle of Britain Wayne Ladd, RAF Squadron Leader, Battle of Britain
Damyns Hall Aerodrome Damyns Hall Aerodrome
Lois Banyard, WAAF Ground Crew Lois Banyard, WAAF Ground Crew
Getting changed, a trainer and a period military boot Getting changed, a trainer and a period military boot

You can see more of Daniella Zalcman's work on her website.

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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