Canadian photographer Racheal McCaig's evocative Vimy monument photos chosen for anniversary celebrations
'It inspires reflection, not just on the Canadian soldiers who fought there...but on all veterans'
"It's is on the back side of our $20 bill. It's page 23 of our passport, but I'm not sure we really look at it or think about what it means," Canadian photographer Racheal McCaig said of Canada's Vimy Monument in France.
Admittedly, she herself didn't know a lot about the memorial site — dedicated to the Canadian soldiers who fought and lost their lives in the First World War — when she travelled there with her two children for an educational daytrip in 2014.
The result, however, was "a powerful and overwhelming experience" that she captured with her camera and will showcase in France and Canada as both countries mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017.
Je Me Souviens: Vimy 100, an exhibit of 18 of McCaig's photos, will be a Canadian component of France's official ceremony taking place next April in Givenchy en Gohelle, where Vimy Ridge is located.
Serendipity led to the Toronto-based photographer being chosen. Meeting with cultural group Alliance Française about a different project in January, she mentioned she had visited Vimy and showed off a few images — pics that quickly made it back to Givenchy en Gohelle's mayor, who was instantly struck by one dramatic shot and wanted her to take part in the upcoming celebrations.
Surprisingly, McCaig's fateful introduction to Vimy didn't bode well at first.
She and her children arrived in chilly rain that threatened to flood the trenches and tunnels — which remain open for tours. They exited the narrow, claustrophobia-inducing underground to witness a spectacular vision.
"As we came up the road and saw the monument for the first time, sun rays poured down on the monument and, honestly, it was the most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life," she recalled.
"I started photographing everything that I could, especially since we didn't know how long the skies would stay clear… As it turns out, after we had photographed everything and taken our own moments for reflection, we turned back to go to the visitors' centre and it immediately started to rain again."
From darkness to light
While touring the trenches, McCaig's guides briefly left their group in the dark, the tunnels just dimly lit by emergency lighting (installed in place of the original lighting the soldiers had).
"You suddenly started feeling so claustrophobic. You can really feel the tunnels closing in on you," McCaig recalled.
The entire experience was moving for her children, especially her son, who was eight years old at the time.
"He suddenly understood exactly what all the soldiers had gone through, what those people had gone through and experienced... There were so many questions they both started asking," she said of her kids, who will return with her to France in April.
McCaig said she felt compelled to capture the "magical" feeling she had when encountering the Vimy monument, designed by Walter Allward and encompassing a memorial base that rises into twin pylons.
"The way the sun was shining down was so perfect...as an artist, I'm so desperate to capture that, make sure I was doing that justice," she said.
She recently discovered that Allward had designed the monument so — at a certain time of day — the sun's rays would shine through and create "a cathedral-like effect."
"It really does make you stop and think. It inspires reflection, not just on the Canadian soldiers who fought there and are in our history, but on all veterans, on all our ancestors, the people who came before us who allowed us to live the lives we have," she said.
Sister exhibit in Canada
In June, Alliance Française will launch Je Me Souviens: Vimy 100, Une Canadienne à Vimy in Toronto, as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.
Featuring some of McCaig's original images along with new photos she'll take in France in April, the sister exhibit will also tour to other cities, including Ottawa and Halifax.
"There are some images that I think will resonate more here on home soil," she said, citing the Canadian cemetery as an example.
"Until you actually see those rows of tombstones lined up, you don't get the sense of it, the scale."
For McCaig, whose work also includes celebrity portraiture, theatre productions and special-event photography, the experience has inspired a deeper understanding of Vimy Ridge.
"We were a very young country and we weren't really regarded as much of anything. At Vimy, we achieved the unachievable... In a way, it was Canada's coming of age," she said.
The last known Canadian First World War veteran died in 2010, while the world's last known veteran of the Great War died two years later, she noted.
"We now no longer have a living connection to that part of our history, and I think that it's that much more vital to take the time and let our children know this is our past, this is what we've been through," McCaig said.
"The thing I say to my kids: whether you agree or disagree with why they fought, the reason that they fought is the reason that you're here. You're allowed to have your opinions, you're allowed to have your freedoms because they fought. I think that's really an important lesson for all of us."