"Topography Is Fate—North African Battlefields of World War II," considers the varied landscapes of North Africa that the Allied soldiers of World War II were forced to endure. Thousands of miles from home, largely untraveled and ignorant of lands and peoples outside their home countries, these soldiers were dropped onto the shores of what must have seemed a dangerous and alien environment. Until arriving, the soldiers' understanding of the land was likely limited to stereotype, myth and the relevant army field manual.

Some World War II battle sites, such as the D-Day beaches of Normandy, are well known and frequently visited. The critical battlefields of the North African campaign, which took place between June 1940 and May 1943, are particularly inaccessible, both because of their geographic location and because they lay in a region that continues to be affected by political strife and violent upheavals. Yet, in 2011 and 2012, I managed to spend several months traveling from Egypt to Tunisia, documenting remote WWII battlefields where Axis and Allied forces fought against each other (and against the elements) amid challenging terrain.

The project presented many obstacles, not only in locating all of the sites but also in obtaining the necessary travel documents, finding safe lodging and transport, and avoiding groups of protestors and rebel forces. For directions, I utilized World War II military maps to follow the route taken by the Allies. Along the way, I photographed the captivating beauty of the now-peaceful landscape, from its craggy coastlines and lowland marshes to its rocky hills and barren expanses of sand. 70 years have not yet eradicated traces of the fighting: campsites can still be found, littered with ration tins, trench systems and pill boxes that still carry the marks of battle. Unexploded shells, barbed wire and mines remain scattered across the landscapes of North Africa and occasionally claim fresh victims, as if the very land itself wanted to remind us of the tragedy of war. These photographs depict the peaceful landscape that it is today so very different from yesterday.

The approach is conceptual, with the photographs of the North African battlefields presented in a fashion similar to the New Topographic photographers of previous generations—in other words, in an almost anonymous and neutral tone of voice. The images are taken in daylight, without complexity and noise, portraying the peaceful quietness of the desert and grasslands. These images allow the viewer to fill in that negative space with their own visualizations of the war. 

With the 70th anniversary of El Alamein recently behind us and the current unrest simmering in the region, these images and landscapes have once more become germane.

—Matthew Arnold


Matthew Arnold's series offers a fascinating perspective on the relationship between history and photography, a meditation on what visible impacts that ravages of the past can leave on the present. To find out more, assistant editor Alexander Strecker reached out for Arnold's thoughts on the power of photography.

Did you ever have a moment when you felt deep inside, "I need to document the world through my camera"?

The funny thing is that I almost stopped photographing altogether. When I went into the Museum School, I believed I would come out as a landscape and portrait photographer, but as school progressed my work became more studio-based, sculptural, political and multidisciplinary. Although I still enjoyed photography, over time, I began to be less enamored by the process. After graduating, I stopped photographing for about three or four years. I lost interested in the medium because what I was creating was not what I wanted to be doing with it.

A few years later, I had the chance to visit a friend who was teaching English in China. I stayed for a month and a half and traveled widely. It was then that I began photographing again. The feeling of movement awakened a past feeling, the feeling of when I was a kid taking pictures all over the southeastern United States. I knew that this is what I was meant to be doing—I knew I was a photographer.

Once I began the Topography Is Fate project, I knew it would be a life-changing event. Once you find your inspiration and style, you know it. It envelops you; it fits into your life like nothing else. It is, in fact, bigger than photography, bigger than a career. It is a part of you that you will never have to worry about losing. Once you find it, you’ll know and you’ll never want to stop creating work.

I have heard many photographers describe that they feel inspired by challenges—do you think that played a role in drawing you out into the blazing desert?

I don’t think I have ever thought about that but I suppose that is true to some degree. Photographers are interested in photographing things that others have yet to photograph. I certainly wanted to do this with Topography Is Fate. No one has photographed North Africa with respect to World War II and I was intensely interested in this aspect of the project. I knew it would be a challenge especially with all of the turmoil that has been going on the region as of late. The inspiration really is the feeling that you can bring back a history in photographs that most people have never seen.

The project was specifically inspired by a trip to Egypt to photograph a friend’s wedding in Alexandria. After the wedding, I spent some time just driving around the desert in a Land Rover and walking around the dunes with some water and my camera. This is where I fell in love with the desert. The time spent in that unbelievable quiet with only myself, the sand and the wind was certainly something significant and profound for me. I came home longing to continue the experience and to go back with a project that would be dear to my heart.

More than anything, I think I was driven by the urge to envelop myself in something much bigger than what I had done before. The landscape of the desert along with the depth of the history interwoven with the personal lives of many of the soldiers and others in the book cemented this project into a lifeblood.

Can you explain the development of your process as the project developed? Did you try many approaches before you settled into a method?

It was an evolution in finding my own voice both stylistically as well as with the subject matter. Over time, photographing people became less interesting to me and the landscapes truly inspired me. When I arrived in the desert in Egypt and grasped the overwhelming simplicity of the light and color against such a complicated landscape, I knew that the viewer should see the subject much in the way it was shown to me.

By the end, my approach became conceptual, with the photographs of the North African battlefields presented, similar to the New Topographic photographers of previous generations, in an almost anonymous and neutral tone of voice. The images are taken in daylight, without complexity and noise, portraying a peaceful quietness of the desert or grassland to allow viewers to fill in that negative space with their own visualization of the war.

­This series is as much about crafting an authentic representation of the physical experience of place as about inspiring the viewer to imagine the conditions of battle. What at first glance might appear to be a photograph of untamed land becomes, upon reading the accompanying caption, an image riddled with the legacy of war. 

—Matthew Arnold, as told to Alexander Strecker 

Exhibition of all 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents: Barcelona, until November 8

Matthew Arnold's work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents will be shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. Please join us for the opening party on October 13, 2014—we hope to see you there! See a preview of ALL the winners here in LensCulture.

ALL winners have already been featured at photo festival screenings in Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Amsterdam so far this year. Next screening in Korea at the
Seoul Lunar Photo Fest.