Field Notes, Sept. 15-18


Monday, Sept. 15

8:00 am breakfast rendezvous with Maryam Bonakdar, pictured below, center, the producer for NDR German television. She traveled from Hamburg, Germany to the small French village of Coucy le Chateau where I’m staying.

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First, Maryam’s crew filmed the exhibition put on by my friends of Association Soissonnais 14/18 in the town of Vic-sur-Aisne. The NDR crew really seemed excited by the exhibition and interviewed my friend Stephane Gonzales, pictured below, left. Stephane speaks English, is a visionary and has been essential to making my collaboration with the Association a great success.


I cherish the moments of being around my “French family” from Association Soissonnais 14/18 and am so proud of their success with the exhibition. Their contribution to my photographing The Hidden World of WWI has been enormously important.

Just before we left for the German underground city where we would be filming for the remainder of the day, the entire crew turned off and handed me their GPS and cell phones. They filmed the handover and are fully supportive of our extensive efforts to keep the location of the underground cities a secret to protect them from vandalism and theft.

As we entered the underground city, the NDR crew felt like they were entering a different world. The vegetation at the entrance to the city seemed almost tropical. The crew was in awe of the size of the underground city and the many vestiges of WWI that remain.

They transformed the total darkness of the space in such a way that the size of the space was revealed.  Thank goodness, many volunteers from the Association came to help us carry television equipment. It would have been a very difficult day without their kind assistance in carrying equipment around in the darkness.

Towards the end of filming, Maryam had lost all sense of time. She wondered if it was dark outside though we still had several more hours of daylight.

It was truly a great experience working with NDR TV Hamburg. I love their enthusiasm for the story and their integrity!

Later that evening, I was invited to the home of Lyne and Jean Lysik who are members of  the Association Soissonnais 14/18. Lyne is a great hostess.  She cooked a superb French dinner with ingredients from her garden.  She and Jean recently opened a bed and breakfast called Le Rouge Gorge in Autreches, France, which I can heartily recommend. The rooms are lovely and the hospitality and warmth of the Lysik’s home is quite special.

Tuesday, Sept. 16

I began the day meeting with some folks about a possible collaboration on photographing an estimated 900 Australian WWI soldier’s inscriptions.  They seem interested in working closely together to bring this one-of-a-kind cultural treasure to the world.  I hope to return in November for about ten days to photograph in this underground city.

At 3:30 pm, I met the BBC One Television reporter Nick Higham, pictured below, left, and cameraman Richard Kenney at Confecourt Farm near Soisson to interview my dear friend Jean Luc Pamart, the president of the Association Soissonnaiss 14/18, pictured below, right.  Jean Luc then generously shared his time taking us to the underground city where I previously photographed the carving of the praying soldier which was the first photograph of the feature story on The Hidden World of WWI in the August, 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The BBC also photographed the Jewish chapel located in the same underground city.


We then went to the underground city at Confrecourt and filmed well past dark. This place really seemed to intrigue Nick Higham and cameraman Richard Kenney.

We were a bit late in reaching Vic-sur-Aisne where we planned to eat dinner…everything was closing by the time we got there. We headed towards Soisson looking for a restaurant. There was a brightly lit restaurant that looked a bit like a truckstop. Wow…were we surprised. We sat at tables outside in the warm summer air. When they brought our food, the portions where nothing short of gigantic…so unexpected in France. We toasted a great first day of working together with Champagne.

Wednesday, Sept. 17

The BBC’s Nick Higham, Richard Kenney and I had breakfast together at the B&B where we all stayed called Chez Ric and Fer. It’s owned by close friends Richard and Fernanda Gamba. What a great way to start the day.

We were on our way to Arras to a large underground city. On the way, Nick and Richard filmed a WWI cemetery where there were both French and German soldiers buried. Through the good graces of a friend, we were able to access places that are not open to the public. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a journalist was ever permitted to film rare WWI vestiges left by New Zealand Maori troops.

It was a great experience and an honor to work with Nick Higham and Richard Kenney…one which I’ll never forget.  Presently, the television feature they shot is scheduled to air Sept 26th on BBC One at 6 pm, as well as on the BBC Newschannel and BBC International. Nick is also producing a broadcast for BBC Radio and BBC Online.

Thursday, Sept. 18

Met Claire Price from Agency France-Presse who drove up from Paris and joined my close friend and collaborator Franck Viltart and I at a restaurant for coffee before going underground in a place where many American soldiers spent about 6 weeks during 1918.  She was awed by the many, many American sculptures and inscriptions.  Sadly, there were very disturbing recent evidences of vandalism.  This was heart-breaking.  Someone spray painted graffiti on the walls of this underground city right over an original WWI inscription.  They had the audacity to spray paint the date…September 3, 2014…only 15 days before our visit.


Then, I had a wonderful meeting with Mathilde Schnieder, pictured above, the curator of the Franco-American Friendship Museum at Bleráncourt, founded during WWI by Anne Morgan (the daughter of legendary financier JP Morgan). She would like to include some of my photographs in their permanent collection when the museum reopens in 2016, which is a great honor.